The search is on for ideas that will stimulate short- and long-term economic growth in the United States without further adding to the budget deficit. Here's a no-brainer: allow university researchers with innovations that are ready to be commercialized to shop around to different technology licensing offices.
That's the idea advanced by Kauffman Foundation vice-presidents Lesa Mitchell and Bob Litan in the forthcoming issue of the newly revamped Harvard Business Review. This issue features the top "Breakthrough Ideas for 2010" and, happily, this idea comes in at number 6!
Currently, if you are a professor with a new technology or innovation, you typically must work through your own university's technology licensing office (TLO). This is inefficient for a variety of reasons. For one thing, not all TLOs are created equal: some have greater skill than others, while a handful excel. Several decades ago, federal funding of academic research was dramatically skewed toward those universities that engaged in the most commercialization: patents, licenses, spinoffs, etc. In the last twenty or thirty years, the distribution line of federal funding has flattened considerably, with a greater number of schools receiving money than before. This is not to say that the distribution is equal, but it's much less skewed than before.
Here's the kicker: the distribution of innovation output--patents, licenses, startups--has not changed. It's still skewed toward a handful of schools despite the huge increase in the number of universities receiving federal R&D money. We are not reaping the benefits of innovations that are presumably emerging from all that research and development.
While some TLOs are more competent than others, moreover, it's also likely that such competence varies by area: one TLO may excel at commercializing life science discoveries while another may have a comparative advantage in computer science. Opening up the market for discoveries and commercialization should help iron out the inefficiencies and barriers that exist.
Kudos to Lesa and Bob for a fantastic article and for advancing a top Breakthrough Idea of 2010.