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Selling science to industry

Scientists are increasingly grasping the need to patent or spin-off their discoveries Keystone

Technology transfer offices help researchers to commercialise their work. Switzerland has a plethora of them.

This content was published on December 2, 2001 - 23:28

Switzerland has long had a reputation for producing plenty of smart scientists, but having little to show for their efforts in the shape of commercial success stories.

It is hoped that university technology transfer offices will change that. They make it their business to commercialise or find industrial applications for scientists' discoveries. They also advise on patent issues and manage the licensing of technology.

Their success rate is not measured by the number of spinoffs, although there are exceptions, such as MIT in the United States and Switzerland's Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne.

Spin-offs are only one of the results of technology transfer. The main goal is to bring research and industry together in a project or licensing relationship.

In Switzerland, where there are some 45 of these offices, questions have already been asked about why the country needs so many.

Too many offices

At a recent innovation symposium in Bern, a Senator from Biel, Christine Beerli, said: "We don't have too few, but rather too many offices for technology transfer." Beerli is also director of the Biel University of Applied Science, Technology and Architecture.

"I agree that there are many initiatives with overlapping functions, but it is not necessary to shut any down at this time. Those who have it right will survive," says Dr. Bruno H Dalle Carbonare, of a Basel's WTT (Wissens- und Technologie Transfer) agency.

Some say offices should be privately funded and separate from the institutions which they advise. Others believe they should be run by the government, or the canton, and yet others say they should be part of an institution's administration.

In Switzerland, all these variations are present, but so far there is little evidence that one works better than another.

One office - a private operation called Unitectra - has chosen the industry-specific route, and concentrates solely on life sciences and biotechnology, but works with all types of research sources from colleges, to universities, to government programmes.

Top-class research

Technology transfer at top-class institutions is increasingly spinning off research into start-up companies.

In the fiscal year 2001, MIT in the US filed more than 400 patents, granted 77 licences (excluding trademarks) and spun off 26 start-ups.

MIT earned more than $83 million in licensing revenues, according to Yvonne Schlaeppi, an American patent lawyer who has worked in Switzerland and Germany, although she points out that these revenues were inflated by the technology bubble.

Last year, the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne spun off an estimated 29 start-ups. The Zurich campus reported that there has been a marked increase in the spin-offs in recent years: from six in 1996, to 17 last year.

Attitude of scientists

Another factor influencing the success of technology transfer offices is the attitude of scientists.

The usual procedure following a scientific experiment or discovery is to publish the results. This conflicts, though, with the need to keep secret any research for which a patent may be sought.

Some scientists - the more entrepreneurial - have grasped that an important aspect of protecting intellectual property is to keep quiet about their discoveries.

"It is not just the young ones. It is professors and post doctorate students who want to patent and spin-off their discoveries that understand the procedures," says Claudia Fesch of the Technology Transfer office of the ETH in Zurich.

"Researchers who are more academically inclined will go ahead and publish their research," she adds.

Yet another factor influencing the success of technology transfer offices is the degree of higher education in the institutions to which they are linked.

Switzerland's universities of applied sciences, for instance, produce far fewer spin-offs and licensing agreements most likely because they do not offer graduate and post-graduate degrees.

Joerg Mayer of Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology says: "Universities of Applied Science don't have legions of doctorate students to do work that lends itself well to technology transfer type projects.

"The professors at these institutions, while they might be very capable and innovative, tend to be too busy teaching."

by Valerie Thompson

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