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Houston expert: 4 misconceptions of university tech transfer offices

Think you know what's happening at university tech transfer offices? Think again. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Beyond their education and research missions, universities across the nation have turned research discoveries into big business. In addition to protecting intellectual property from faculty discoveries, universities build and support startup pipelines to help researchers commercialize those technologies.

However, there are a few misconceptions when it comes to university tech transfer offices that keep faculty at bay. Here, we'll take a look at four misconceptions and explore the truth behind the thinking.

Misconception 1: Filing patent paperwork is all tech transfer offices do

While tech transfer offices are in the business of patents, many offer a full range of services to support the commercialization process. This can include everything from strategy and startup development to the establishment of enterprise and industry ventures. Many university tech transfer offices operate incubators, co-working space for startups and accelerator programs, and some even build and manage venture funds.

"At the University of Houston, we now offer lots of services to faculty, such as strategy sessions to help them understand the commercial potential of their technologies," said Chris Taylor, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation. "We also help faculty license their technologies to ensure fair use as they transition them into the market."

Misconception 2: I need to have a fully-developed idea to submit a disclosure

According to Taylor, many faculty begin interacting with tech transfer offices once they have a technology fully developed. But tech transfer offices can do much more for faculty if involved early in the process.

"Yes, we do help protect what's been developed. But, if we have a conversation at the beginning, we could help faculty shape or pivot their technologies. This will give them the greatest market potential," he said.

One of the many benefits of tech transfer offices is their ability to readily research the market.

"We can determine whether or not technologies can be disclosed, patented and licensed. It's important to know this before going through a lengthy and expensive filing process."

Misconception 3: The patent process will slow down my publication plans

Publishing researching findings may be one of the most important activities for the university researcher. However, publishing research on unprotected discoveries can result in the loss of patent rights. Therefore, filing a disclosure is very important, according to Taylor.

"Publishing is one of the best ways to market university technologies," he said. "However, industry values patented technologies, so it's better to make a small time investment to protect your IP.

Misconception 4: Getting a patent is the primary goal for tech transfer offices

As Taylor explains, the primary goal of tech transfer offices is to help faculty "transfer" their discoveries to society. And while patenting technologies is one way to do that, tech transfer offices also provide education and mentoring programs. They also support other protections such as copyrights for software.

"IP protection is important," he said. "It gives faculty control over how their technology is used, for good or for bad. So, this is an important part of the work that we do for faculty. But, we support faculty in so many other ways through the entire pipeline."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, is the executive director of communivations for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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