What We Can Learn From MIT – It’s All About Impact not Income

MIT has an incredible reputation, is an amazing brand, and is connected to numerous tech transfer successes. It is true that the system in the US is very different to that in Sweden: The laws are different, there is more money available in most parts of the US system, the domestic market is larger and the culture is very different. However, this is not say that Sweden cannot learn from the example of MIT, and apply whatever is feasible.

The rather non-entrepreneurial way of thinking in Sweden is striking and prompts many Swedes to argue that we cannot copy the US model since the prerequisites are different. The true entrepreneur would argue that the prerequisites need to change. However, perhaps the more accurate argument would be that we should not try to copy the US model in all its parts because it is far from perfect.

SNITTS (Swedish Network for Innovation and Technology Transfer Support) organized a Swedish technology transfer delegation to Boston for a week to get an overview of the Boston innovation system. Most of the time was spent at MIT visiting their Office Sponsored Program, the Technology licensing Office, the Deshpande Center, the Entrepreneurship Center and interviewing a researcher about to embark on his second start-up venture.

We were not focused on learning how to work with start-up companies: in that area we are on a par in our view. The delegation also had the impression that the different organizations they met were struggling to find their natural roles in the MIT eco system. What was useful was seeing the structured way in which they operated and how they communicated.

Technology transfer is a contact sport

It was striking that many of the people we spoke to had the same core policies and values. They were able to communicate them through the entire organization. The two most important messages were that technology transfer is about impact not income, and that technology transfer is a contact sport. University and industry must come together, must get to know each other and must understand each other’s cultures and drivers. One of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center’s core values was ‘celebrate’. This should become part of Swedish university policy and on its own, might have a positive cultural effect. It was heartwarming and encouraging to hear from the MIT researcher, was that when he got his tenure track position at MIT, his research efforts and contributions were not measured in terms of publications. The measure used was simply ‘Impact’ – it was what he had done to fly the MIT flag that mattered! This meant that it was not just scientific articles that were valued, but also activities to commercialize research, attract funding in terms of grants or donations, etc.

Structure of University-Industry Partnerships – the key to success

The MIT Office for Sponsored Programs was very impressive and is something that should be exported and built on in Swedish universities. The Office for Sponsored Programs structures and handles MIT’s complex world of collaboration and contract research. The Office of Sponsored Programs provides the centrally organized administration, business and financial functions related to grants and contracts. Its personnel assist faculty, principal investigators, and administrators to identify resources and manage individual sponsored projects. They ensure that documentation is consistent with MIT’s academic and research policies and with stewardship requirements and obligations to external sponsors of research and other programmes. Processes were in place to deal with all forms of collaboration.

Over 600 companies currently sponsor collaborative research with MIT faculty and students through Office for Sponsored Programs -administered contracts. These collaborations allow company sponsors and MIT researchers to advance understanding and solve complex problems.

Collaborative research projects typically evolve through relationships between companies and faculty members, as is the case in Sweden. In Sweden, however, the structure is different. There are cases where researchers have signed contracts giving away their intellectual property – sometimes to more than one company, which has put their universities in positions of liability. There are cases where arrangements have not benefited the researcher due to lack of knowledge about collaboration and lack of a university support structure.

Of course, companies may find it easier to negotiate only with the researchers, but there are risks for both sides if the administration is not involved.

Technology licensing to generate societal benefits

The message from the Office of Technology Licensing at MIT was quite clear: monetary income is not the aim of this part of the innovation system. The main goal is to ensure that technologies end up in the market. This is not the same as giving intellectual property rights for free, but rather a statement about how they can be optimized. It is regarded as misconduct towards the taxpayer not to ensure that companies wanting to exploit research results derived from MIT pay a fair price. The operation is a success both in monetary terms and in terms of providing societal benefits.

To conclude, although we have a lot to learn from MIT, and we should be conscientious about it, there are things we can be proud of in Sweden. For example, we are very good at creating university spin offs. We have advanced academia-industry collaboration models, e.g. in terms of industry PhD programmes. We need to learn how to communicate our good examples and success stories, and celebrate our successes, see our weaknesses in terms of challenges, and work to create an even better system that makes the most of our strengths. On these fronts we are good, but we can be better, and there are things we can learn from the best.

Do It Yourself – Become better at tech transfer

  • Structure and have a strategy for your intellectual assets
  • Communicate this strategy at all levels, loudly and clearly, so it becomes part of the culture
  • Understand the different cultures obtaining in academia and industry and accept the different goals.

By Åsa Larsson, Director SNITTS
Henric Rhedin, Division Manager, Chalmers Industrial Technologies Foundation (CIT)

About SNITTS

SNITTS is a Swedish, non-profit organization, for people who work on knowledge and technology transfer. We define technology transfer as all exchanges or sharing of knowledge, skills, processes, services or technologies involving at least two organizations. We work with Information, Identity, Ideology, and Insight. For more information see www.snitts.se.

About MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university located in Cambridge, MA. MIT has five schools and one college and a total of 32 academic departments. It puts a strong emphasis on scientific and technological research. For more information, please visit www.mit.edu

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