09 Feb Visions with Mark Bugher: Remove barriers to tech transfer
Editor’s note: This interview with Mark Bugher, director of Madison’s University Research Park, was conducted as the Tech Council’s report on the economic value of academic R&D was released.
WTN: Do you expect the Legislature to take these recommendations seriously in the current economic environment?
Bugher: The Legislature operates based on delivery, I think that when they see the university delivering meaningful results as a result in the public investment in the university and the research activities on campus, they will be much more willing to reciprocate with some of these public-policy issues, which I think are important to continue the entrepreneurial climate that we have.
WTN: One of the Tech Council’s recommendations is to improve the rate of technology transfer. Some work has been done on that already, whether it’s Act 255 or efforts to provide more business management skills to professors who want to commercialize their discoveries. What specific things can we do to further improve the rate of tech transfer that the Legislature can help with?
Bugher: I think the Legislature can certainly assist with faculty entrepreneurship. There are some of what I consider to be regulatory hurdles that are in the way of faculty easily transitioning from the academic world to the business world. Those are contained within the document in terms of suggestions that state government should perhaps consider.
I think there are also issues related to workforce that the Legislature and state government can help with in terms of creating a place where we have a well-educated workforce that can easily transition into these companies – highly skilled people, whether they have a two-year tech college degree or a four-year degree from the UW. The university created a Masters in Biotechnology program to help with the creation of mid-level management positions in these biotech companies, so that clearly is an area where I think state government can be helpful in terms of continuing the climate within the university.
I think as important is the whole business of public support for the university’s efforts on campus because if we have a strong campus environment, that means infrastructure and students and quality faculty, we’ll have an outstanding technology transfer program. They are hand-in-hand. One does not operate independently of the other.
The reason we have a great technology transfer program here today is because for 150 years, we’ve had a great university. If the great university is in jeopardy, then we will notice that in our economic development initiatives as well.
WTN: What are the particular regulatory hurdles that you would cite?
Bugher: There are conflict-of-interest rules and issues related to maximum levels of compensation that faculty members can get from private enterprise that are somewhat constricting on their ability to easily transfer their intellectual property and create companies in the private sector. After all, these are public employees that are trying to create entrepreneurial activity, and so sometimes in our efforts to ensure that we’re protecting and carefully shepherding public-sector resources, we create such regulatory burdens that it becomes very difficult for people to easily create start-up companies.
I think the whole business of sending the signal to the faculty that entrepreneurial activity is okay, that as long as they continue to do their public-sector jobs on campus in a way that’s consistent with the expectations of the university, that they should not be discouraged from commercializing intellectual property.
WTN: Besides reversing the state funding slide for UW System, how do you think the Legislature will respond to some of these other Tech Council recommendations – for example, allowing faculty more time to pursue their research interests by alleviating them of some teaching time?
Bugher: I think that’s a university governance issue. I think there is also the issue of giving faculty tenure credit for technology transfer activities. That would be a big one. Right now, it’s essentially publishing and that sort of thing. I’m not quite as familiar with the jargon associated with that, but I know that faculty tenure is a coveted benchmark by faculty and if you spend all of your time on technology transfer activity and perfecting a discovery that might be molded into a valuable and successful start-up company, that is going to take time away from research and writing, publication, and the sorts of things that usually are considered as a result of your tenure application.
I think looking at different measurements for tenure approval that would include entrepreneurial activity ought to be considered.
WTN: What do you want people to take away from the Tech Council’s academic R&D report?
Bugher: The Legislature and policy makers always want results; they always want data and sound science to justify the claims that the university is an economic engine, so here it is. I think this study performs a very valuable role in helping to reaffirm the university’s commitment to economic development and what it really means to the state for the research activities that are occurring on our campuses and at our private institutions across the state.