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Improving university commercialization success

February 29, 2024
By: Jerry Coughter

Why do some universities excel at translating their research into economic impact while others lag? A recent NBER working paper explores the factors influencing the variation in universities' commercialization activities. The authors follow the career movements of 31,000 academic researchers across 1,100 U.S. universities and analyze how the situations at the different host universities may have influenced an increase or decrease in these researchers’ subsequent patent filings and company formations.

The authors present three key findings. First, moving to a university with a stronger commercialization infrastructure, such as one with a technology transfer office and venture capital network increases the likelihood of an academic's research leading to patents and company formation by 15-25%. This increase suggests universities play a crucial role in fostering innovation and technology transfer. Second, universities within technology clusters benefit from proximity to resources, talent, and potential partners, further boosting commercialization potential. Third, the study shows variable success rates within institutions, suggesting that specific departments or research centers might have unique cultures or resources influencing their commercialization success. For example, biomedical research and engineering may produce innovations that are more ready for commercialization than discoveries in fields such as organic chemistry.

The paper’s findings suggest several potential state and institution-level policy interventions may help increase university commercialization rates

  • Increase investment in academic technology transfer offices ; 
  • Foster a campus culture that encourages and values research with commercial potential, through  training, publicly acknowledging or celebrating success, rewarding commercialization activity in the tenure and sabbatical processes, and supporting mentorship programs for interested faculty;
  • Encourage the campus research community to collaborate with industry partners, local businesses, and other research institutions and collect data on these efforts’ impact to inform future strategies.;
  • Update intellectual property policies for more efficient technology transfer and increased industry engagement;
  • Expand support for commercialization opportunities in schools and colleges where commercialization paths are less likely to involve patents, such as through copyrights, digital rights, and trademarks;
  • Invest in financial programs that support university-industry research and commercialization collaboration;
  • Recruit faculty with interest in commercialization; and,
  • Provide commercialization-oriented faculty convenient access to startup incubation space and venture development organizations.

The working paper, “The Wandering Scholars: Understanding the Heterogeneity of University Commercialization”, by Josh Lerner, Henry J. Manley, Carolyn Stein and Heidi L. Williams, is available here.