New ASU center to create a better, more efficient blueprint for tech transfer

Global Center for Technology Transfer will focus on research, education

April 4, 2022

A world without technology transfer would look very different: no Gatorade, no COVID-19 vaccines, no smartphones, among other things.

Technology transfer, or moving things created in labs out into the marketplace, is a key part of solving problems or meeting needs in society. As important as it is, there are still ways it can be improved.

Enter the Global Center for Technology Transfer (GCTT), a new center at Arizona State University that launches this month. It is an effort that stretches across multiple colleges — the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, the W. P. Carey School of Business, and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — bringing a range of expertise to bear.

The center, which will be housed at the Thunderbird School on the Downtown Phoenix campus, will focus on research and education, especially executive education in creating an efficient blueprint for technology transfer (TT).

“A primary goal of GCTT is to identify and disseminate ‘best practices’ in managing TT at universities, firms and federal/national labs, and designing and implementing effective TT policies at the regional, national and supra-national levels,” said center Co-Director Don Siegel. 

It has ramifications in economic development, both globally and regionally, and part of the work the center will do is designing executive education programs and workshops for those who manage intellectual property at universities, federal labs and firms, as well as economic development officials in government.

Talent development is also an important part of the center via training and mentoring students, “with an emphasis on first-generation, Hispanic, African American, Indigenous people and other underrepresented groups of students, including doctoral students and postdocs,” said Siegel, who is also a Foundation Professor of Public Policy and Management and director of the School of Public Affairs in Watts College.

Here, Siegel and Co-Director David Waldman, professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, speak about technology transfer, why it matters and what the center hopes to do.

Question: For the general public who doesn’t understand technology transfer, can you explain what it is and why it’s important? Are there famous examples of it with products created at a university or national lab?

Waldman: Technology transfer involves processes through which knowledge, technologies and capabilities that are developed in universities, federal laboratories and other research-oriented entities are adopted in the broader society to satisfy public or private needs.

We often think about technology transfer in terms of patenting, licensing of patents, startups and so forth. But it can also be a bit less formal, such as when universities and private industry engage in cooperative research agreements. One example that I often share with students and others is Gatorade, which was developed in 1965 in a University of Florida laboratory, and subsequently licensed to private industry. More recently, the COVID vaccines originated in university laboratories but have been produced and distributed by private firms, such as Pfizer.

Q: What is the need that this center will serve? Why is technology transfer not efficient or productive enough currently?

Waldman: Technology transfer is a complex and involved phenomenon. We just don’t know enough about the phenomenon and how to maximize its effectiveness and efficiency. But yet technology transfer is incredibly important for societies all over the world if we are to realize practical outcomes for technological inventions or innovation. Society benefits through better health, economic development and useful products/services for consumers.

To answer the second part of your question, the problem is that technology transfer is a multifaceted problem involving a number of different stakeholders. It’s multifaceted in that it encompasses a range of issues/challenges, including dealing with intellectual property or legal issues, how to manage technology transfer offices to ensure a good organization for such efforts and coordinating the needs of various entities/stakeholders (e.g., scientists, universities, federal labs, government). Whenever such complexities are involved in a phenomenon, efficiencies and productivity become challenging.

Q: Does anything like this presently exist to help facilitate TT from federal labs?

Siegel: No, there is no center like this in the world. It will be the intellectual leader in the field of TT. More specifically, GCTT will be the first to bridge research and practice on TT at universities and federal/national labs and its connection to economic/regional growth, entrepreneurship and social development.

We will also be the world leader in executive education for intellectual property managers at firms, universities, federal/national labs and public research institutes, and managers of incubators/accelerators and science/technology parks. 

On the ground, we will be facilitating TT from federal labs because through our research, TT officials, and other supervisory personnel, will learn how to better manage TT and how to motivate and incentivize their employees to be more engaged in this activity. Policymakers will also be able to benefit from “lessons learned,” in terms of how to formulate and implement better TT policies.   

Q: What kinds of technologies and products are we missing out on, particularly from national labs?

Siegel: Many federal lab scientists conduct path-breaking research in the life sciences (e.g., cancer research), engineering and energy. Accelerating TT from national labs would likely result in the more rapid diffusion, adoption and development of alternative/green energy technologies in the workplace and in households. Thus, accelerating TT would increase the probability that we address challenges associated with climate change and environmental degradation. 

Also, more rapid TT in the life sciences at federal and national labs would save lives, due to faster development of life-saving drugs, vaccines and treatments. History has also shown us that many technologies developed for the military (e.g., GPS, computers and the internet, microwave technology and penicillin) have widespread civilian applications, so accelerating TT from Department of Defense labs is also critical. 

In sum, our research suggests that society would be better off, both economically and in terms of health outcomes, if federal and national labs had fewer restrictions of their ability to engage with industry and entrepreneurs.  

Waldman: For many years, what we had learned about technology transfer largely emanated from universities. The national labs were somewhat of a “black hole,” although since federal legislation in the 1980s, technology transfer has clearly been part of the mission of national labs.

However, in very recent years, Don Siegel and I have been doing interview-based research, and will shortly do some broader surveying, in national labs. Our research has specifically involved the Department of Energy, Health and Human Services, and Department of Defense labs. In the future, I expect that our research will extend to other labs and agencies of the federal government because there is a renewed impetus on the part of policymakers to better understand and advance technology transfer in federal labs.

Q: A recent study by Waldman, Siegel’s doctoral student Haneul Choi and others — “Assessing differences between university and federal laboratory postdoctoral scientists in technology transfer” — looked at how and why federal lab scientists are not as active with tech transfer. Why is it important that more discoveries at national labs make it to the marketplace through tech transfer?

Siegel: One reason that federal lab scientists are not as active in TT as university scientists is that federal labs, as an institution, are less “entrepreneurial” than universities. It is extremely important that more discoveries at federal/national labs make it to the marketplace. 

In a recent article (Price and Siegel, 2019), I found that many of the most significant innovations in the post-World War II period were developed at federal/national labs, including nuclear energy, computers and the internet, the Human Genome Project, GPS and smartphone technology. Accelerating the diffusion and use of such “general-purpose technologies” is critical, since they lead to the creation of new industries and millions of new jobs, as well as improving the quality of our lives and public health outcomes. 

Two recent examples of the public health benefits of federal lab TT come to mind. The first was the development of the NIH/Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The lead federal lab scientist on the vaccine was Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American woman. A second example was technology developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which effectively removes arsenic from drinking water, bringing safe water to millions around the globe.  

A multidisciplinary effort

The center will call upon the expertise and resources of units across ASU, but from four in particular: the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, the W. P. Carey School of Business, and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Leadership from those schools and colleges share their excitement for the center.

From Thunderbird Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram: “At Thunderbird, we prepare global leaders for the fourth industrial revolution to advance sustainable prosperity worldwide. Thunderbird is proud to be a founding member of ASU’s new Global Center for Technology Transfer due to its role in advancing research and practice of technology transfer and facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship across the globe. We are honored to have it housed in Thunderbird’s new and most technologically advanced global headquarters in downtown Phoenix, and mobilize our 20 regional Centers of Excellence around the world from Nairobi to Jakarta, Dubai to Bogota, to support the GCTT.”

From W. P. Carey Interim Dean Amy Ostrom: “Technology transfer is a vital research area connecting higher education, technology and business to meet real-world needs. As a university focused on innovation, I’m proud we are also focused on how those innovations move into our communities.”

From Watts College Dean Cynthia Lietz: “The Global Center for Technology Transfer is another excellent example of why ASU is the most innovative university. GCTT will reach across our campuses to include four colleges and schools, making GCTT the first such entity to connect technology transfer research and practice at universities and at federal and national laboratories. GCTT will educate and support students interested in this area, emphasizing first-generation and other underrepresented groups. This initiative is transdisciplinary, promotes excellence and access, and engages in work of public value. What a great example of how we advance the ASU charter.”

From The College Dean Patrick Kenney: “The College is committed to improving communities on a local, national and global scale. The interdisciplinary nature of the Global Center for Technology Transfer allows us to leverage expertise within The College and across the university, positioning us at the forefront of technology transfer research and education in the world. The center will have a significant impact on real-world challenges, improving the systems and technologies we use in our everyday lives.”

The Global Center for Technology Transfer will hold a workshop Wednesday, April 6, in the new home of the Thunderbird School of Global Management on the Downtown Phoenix campus. The workshop, featuring both policymakers and academic professionals, will look at such topics as economic development, legal and intellectual property issues, and international and executive education.

Posted in AZBio News.