Commercialising university R&D: ‘They just distrust each other’

  • Lack of trust has been built over the years
  • Key is to get a business person to head the unit

THE Malaysian Government has for years been trying to get public universities in the country to more effectively commercialise their research and development (R&D), with various programmes and multiple millions dedicated to it.
Since 2003, the Government even began setting up US-inspired Technology Licensing Offices (TLOs) in universities to help bridge the gap between academics and industry, and to make sure that the rights of academics are protected in any collaboration with industry. To no avail, it would seem.
A former academic who became an entrepreneur shared his observation that there was a glaring disconnect between the TLOs and the researchers themselves. “They just distrust each other,” he stated, requesting anonymity.
Under those circumstances, it is no surprise that he has yet to see any successful intellectual property (IP) being commercialised since the time he left academia 10 years ago.
Commercialising university R&D: ‘They just distrust each other’Nor is there the usual hope in the young. When asked if he has observed whether younger researchers were more inclined to work and commercialise their work, he said, “They concentrate on publishing research papers. That guarantees promotion and the path to becoming a professor. Not commercialising IP.”
If that is a particularly grim prognosis of the state of commercialisation in our public universities, then Ahmad Zakir Jaafar (pic), who heads the TLO at University Putra Malaysia (UPM), confirmed some of the observations but also offered some optimism for the future.
He was speaking at the IP Valuation conference hosted by the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia (MyIPO) from Nov 6-7. Just five months into the job, Zakir acknowledged that trust between his office and researchers had eroded over the years due to a host of reasons:
The structure and pace of public universities is not geared to the fast pace of the private sector. He gave the example of how the university’s legal department can take up to one month to get a draft agreement approved.
Lack of expertise in TLOs
According to Zakir, the TLO officers, mainly academics, have insufficient experience to be able to proposing different business models, and are still stuck in believing in the direct licensing model.
They shy away from using new methods such as crowdsourcing as a source for funds and getting raw materials.
Not going the extra mile
The TLO staffers do not try hard enough to connect researchers to the various original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who know the terrain better.
Backseat for commercialisation
Interestingly, it has not been a priority for the public universities to focus on getting technology to market. Many of the TLOs are part of a small office within the department, together with the research grant office and patent office. Many of the TLO officers have overlapping roles too.
Despite the laundry list of woes, Zakir still feels that Malaysian universities can change gear and revive themselves – especially those that employ a business practitioner to head their TLO. He himself has a Masters in Economics and Finance from the UK and has 20 years experience running various businesses and teaches MBA students.
“The mindset from within has to change before the universities can execute any government policy,” he said, adding that UPM has to date filed 1,241 IPs.
Earlier Story: IP management at NUS is no walk in the park
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