Technology Transfer: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Book review: University Technology Transfer: What Is It And How To Do It, Tom Hockaday (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020)

Would you like to work with leading academics, and help them to transfer their technology from the university to the market, for the benefit of society? What skills do you need for this work? How is your work environment organised? What pressures do you face? How do you measure success? These and other questions are answered in Tom Hockaday’s crisply written, compellingly argued, authoritative book.

At the time of writing, the World is rushing to develop treatments and products for Covid 19, to reduce the number of human deaths, perhaps by hundreds of thousands. Many of those treatments and products are being initiated in universities. IP Draughts knows several people, across universities and law firms, who have been working on Covid 19-related research and technology transfer (TT).

The state of TT today reflects its evolution over the last few decades. When IP Draughts started in practice, many academics were suspicious of the commercial world and its values. Commercial exploitation was, for some, a negative term; the emphasis was on the word exploitation. In 1985, the UK Government announced that universities would be free to manage their own TT activities, rather than assigning their IP to the British Technology Group (formerly the National Research and Development Corporation). Thus started the growth of TT departments in UK universities.

Tom Hockaday has been part of that growth for nearly as long as IP Draughts. Their paths have crossed many times. Tom’s first job in the sector was at University College London; although IP Draughts advised UCL at that time, he can’t remember working with Tom. Next, Tom moved to the University of Bristol, and IP Draughts worked on several projects with him during that time.

Finally, Tom moved to the University of Oxford, where he was promoted to managing director of the university’s TT company; he did this job for 10 years. The former head of Tom’s legal department,  Stephen Brett, is now a partner in Anderson Law LLP.

Tom’s book is packed with useful information, which would be of interest to anyone starting a TT function, or wanting advice on how to deal with the difficulties that a TT office faces. Reading the book, IP Draughts was reminded of how much knowledge one acquires over several decades in a professional role, and how that hard-learnt knowledge can be wasted when you retire. Writing a good book is one way of passing on the knowledge, as is building up and training a large team that will be your legacy, and providing consulting services to other TT teams. Tom has done, and is doing, all of these things.

The book is, as already mentioned, crisply written. It gets straight to the point that Tom is making. IP Draughts is drawn to the analogy of an intelligent staff officer briefing a group of impatient generals about how the battle is going. Colonel Hockaday is sensitive to his audience, has the facts at his fingertips, avoids waffle, is not afraid to express an insightful opinion, and is above all clear.

Although disciplined in his writing, Tom allows himself occasional bursts of humour, which IP Draughts greatly appreciates. One of Tom’s topics is the habit of universities to conduct periodic (and sometimes ill-informed) reviews and reorganisations of TT activities. He cites the example – genuine? apocryphal? it doesn’t really matter – of the head of the TT office who hears of his vice-chancellor’s plan to conduct a review of the office, and offers to resign immediately to save him the hassle.

One reason why Tom’s thesis is so persuasive is that it is expressed in reasonable terms, and backed up by evidence and examples. As one might expect, many of those examples are from his experience at Oxford, and sometimes IP Draughts was provoked to think that other ways of doing things were equally valid. But that in itself is useful – the book presents a point of view and implicitly challenges you to come up with a better alternative. This is what Ken Adams calls, in a different context, the marketplace of ideas.

The book is not all about Oxford, though. Tom is well informed about other leading UK universities and their approach to TT. He is not afraid to put the boot in where he thinks it is justified, as he does when describing Imperial College’s “interesting experiment” in hiving off its TT activities to a publicly-listed company.

The book provides extremely useful information to anyone who is involved in creating or developing a TT office, in the UK or overseas. It should be required reading for all presidents, vice-chancellors and senior managers of universities that have a TT office and are tempted to interfere in its activities.

2 Comments

Filed under Book review, universities

2 responses to “Technology Transfer: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Carol David Daniel

    Sadly it won’t be read let alone be actioned by presidents, VCs and senior management of Universities. I’m not sure that much has evolved, Universities are focused on teaching and research, and their culture and processes reflect this making the job of the TTO more difficult rather than easier. Academics are measured on their research grant incomes and publications not on exploitation and so this is another barrier which works against the TTO and explains many examples of important research which became knowledge transfer because it was never protected.

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