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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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Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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