What is tech transfer ?

Technology transfer covers several activities that contribute to two main, partly contradictory, purposes. To promote the transition from scientific discoveries made by universities to practical applications on the one hand, and to defend the economic interests and intellectual property of these same schools on the other.

Although the creation of Yeda, the technology transfer office of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, dates back to 1959, the institutionalization of this activity with dedicated offices in universities in the United States dates back to the 1970s, with Europe following suit in the late 1980s.

In the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 motivated many American universities to establish technology transfer offices. This law decentralizes the ownership of inventions financed by federal subsidies. Universities that have received these funds retain ownership of their inventions and can patent and license them to American companies. The law also requires universities to share licensing revenues with inventors.

Since then, technology transfer has gradually been enriched by various activities. In addition to patent management and commercialization, there have been industrial collaborations and various programmes aimed at fostering innovation directly by researchers by supporting the creation of start-ups.

The two main channels for technology transfer from the academic world to the economy remain research collaborations and the commercialization of inventions.

«In the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 motivated many American universities to establish technology transfer offices»

Research collaborations

The majority of companies are not equipped to conduct advanced scientific research. This is what leads them to establish research partnerships with universities and their institutes.

These collaborations can take many forms. From the broadest to the most specific, one can list, without being exhaustive, the global sponsorship of a laboratory or a chair, the partnership co-financed on a research project in a field of joint interest (with sharing of intellectual property) or the research mandate entirely financed by the company according to defined specifications.

In addition to these research collaborations, technology transfer offices manage other types of cooperation between universities and economic partners: advice, material transfer agreements (samples, etc.) and associated non-disclosure contracts.

«The majority of companies are not equipped to conduct advanced scientific research»

Commercialization of inventions

The results of academic research have the potential to form the basis for innovative products developed and then commercialized by companies. Public institutions strive to make research results with potential for socio-economic impact available to the private sector.

This is usually done through technology licences granted to companies. For academic licences to be attractive to industry, the corresponding intellectual property rights must be guaranteed. This is what leads to the filing of patents.

The equation can be complicated when the - legitimate - mission of defending the interests of the academic institute conflicts with the objective of technology transfer by creating friction, sometimes significant, in the process (conditions, duration of negotiations). Everything is then a matter of balance.

A needle in a haystac

In any case, the path from a fundamental research activity (in partnership or not) to an innovation deployed (protected or not) is not mechanical, and involves people and activities that do not follow the same logic.

The process for an invention to emerge as a true innovation is long and selective


In the end, when we compare the different orders of magnitude, it is clear that innovation is an almost accidental phenomenon, which is as much a result of the alignment of the stars at a given moment as of the immense efforts that have led to it.

«The path from a fundamental research activity to an innovation deployed is not mechanical»