University technology transfer methods are ready to meet the Long Tail. What’s the Long Tail? It’s a concept borrowed from statistics; if you imagine a bar chart with a few tall bars followed by a slow curve downwards, that’s a long tail curve. A bar chart that ranks sales of book titles at amazon.com, for instance, displays a classic long tail pattern: a few books sell a lot (the long bars) and a lot of books sell fewer copies (the gradual curve downwards). However, if you add up sales revenue from the more esoteric (i.e. not the New York Times bestsellers) books, their combined total revenue equal a pretty good chunk of income, almost as much as the revenue from the big best sellers.
Back when I worked in a tech transfer office at a large research university, I wanted to see which of our technologies were the ” greatest hits” on our web search engine and which ones were less popular. Using the number of page views per technology from our web analytics tool, I ranked the popularity of the inventions.
Does this curve look familiar?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon the long tail of technology transfer: a few technologies got a lot of page views, but after the top 3 or so, page views of the rest of the IP portfolio trailed off slowly and gradually.
I was thrilled with this discovery. After all, didn’t it demonstrate that a sensible way to prioritize marketing efforts would be to look at what’s “selling” (technologies with high page views, or “head” technologies), and put extra marketing resources behind those few. (This differs from the much-reviled “home run” approach to tech transfer because it’s not based on guess work but on proven user behavior.)
Here’s where the fun ended. I presented these findings to licensing colleagues and the unit director at a staff meeting a few weeks later. Their response was strickingly reminiscent of that of brick and mortar retailers in the early days of ecommerce. “It will never work.” “These numbers don’t mean anything.” “How we do it now is working just fine.” “A computer can never replace the wisdom and judgment of a human being.” And most confusingly, “this info isn’t relevant – it all happened in the past.” (No, I still haven’t figured out the logic behind that one). I left the room that day deflated, yet determined to find gold in this data.
I found the goldmine a few weeks ago when I read Chris Anderson’s (editor of Wired magazine) book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. It’s a great book. After I finished, my mind went back to that intriguing bar chart of web site hits I had pulled almost a year ago and it dawned on me. Demand for new technologies follows the law of the Long Tail. Web technologies can unlock the long tail of early stage, niche university inventions and technologies that are at risk of languishing in obscurity. Yet, we use a pre-1980s bricks and mortar approach to technology transfer.
In a recent exchange on techno-l (a popular emailing list where people discuss tech transfer issues), Darren Cox describes his perception of the standard marketing process for university technologies:
“…the tech transfer industry, as a whole, hasn’t kept up with the staggering advances in electronic marketing techniques and search engine optimization strategies, over the last decade. The only viable option for transferring the latest technology to someone who can turn it into jobs, growth and money for your university, lab or hospital, is sending more emails and making more phone calls and hoping that serendipity smiles upon your efforts; leaving one hoping that the new technology is at the perfect intersection of innovation, need, ability, resources and the right person actually knowing the other right person, so they can engineer a meeting.”
Compare Cox’s description to your most recent investigation into something you wanted to learn about or buy (outside of work, in your private life). You probably searched Google and a few major ecommerce sites (if it was a commercial product). Your web search likely unearthed information about available goods and services from all over the world. The sheer overwhelming chaos of available resources was controlled by user reviews of the item, and user reviews of the object and the seller. You probably also found ways to figure out which items/services were purchased by the most people and what items/services were similar. If you decided to buy whatever is was you were looking for, you probably did not pick up the phone to start negotiating with the buyer over the price, terms and conditions. Instead, you clicked a button (no registration required) to “get in touch with me,” or you walked thru a simple online license (no negotiations, all transparent) and paid with your credit card.
It’s the efficient and user-friendly find –> choose –> buy process that enables the long tail model of online retail. How could universities make it easier for the tax paying public to find –> choose –> obtain (note I didn’t necessarily say buy!) federally funded university inventions? True, early stage inventions aren’t simple commodity items. Yet a few small step improvements could be made now without making major changes to the current tech transfer processes.
- Ask university researchers, as they disclose their inventions, to assign their own keywords and their own 200 word abstract to their technology. They know the buzzwords better than anybody
- Add a “most looked at technologies” view to your web site. I’ll bet $1000 that the resulting bar curve will be a long tail.
- Let users rate the materials you have available. Add a sort capability so users can see which materials were the most highly rated by their colleagues.
- Build in a “other users who viewed this technology also viewed these technologies” capability.Let users choose from a smorgasboard of licensing options ranging from click thru, non exclusive with very few terms to a “Let’s negotiate” option for prospective licensees who have the time and patience to put together a custom license with a university tech transfer office. Let them pay online if there’s a fee.
- Allow users to comment on, and review their experience with your TTO.
- In web analytics reports, if a few popular technologies keep coming out in the head of the long tail, feature those technologies on the web site. Learn more from the faculty researcher why this particular invention is so hot. Does it solve some sort of industry problem?
Most university tech transfer offices have a web site, a search engine of available technologies, and some sort of web master, either a vendor or in-house employee Even better, mega-databases of university technologies such as iBridge that have lots of resources and lots of visibility could be a great place to implement and experiment with these ecommerce-style tools and methods.
Have any tech transfer practitioners out found clever ways to adapt their current process to today’s long tail world? I’d love to hear about it.
Melba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.