I had the opportunity to listen in on the testimony of Dr. Brian R. Wamhoff (HemoShear, LLC), Dr. Elizabeth Hart-Wells (Purdue University), and Dr. Erik Lium (University of California) for the Subcommittee on Research and Technology last week. The subcommittee is currently evaluating draft legislation regarding the STTR/SBIR program that would allow a small portion of the funds to be distributed directly to technology transfer offices at universities, research institutes, and national laboratories that are engaging in innovative and scalable approaches to improving technology commercialization.
In general the change is positive, as it creates an institutional program that can help vet, organize, and assist in the early stages of technology development when the resources and idea maturity would make it extremely difficult for the researchers, students, or entrepreneurs to obtain funds from other sources. Keeping this program within the purview of the STTR funding mechanism and distributing funds to regional technology transfer offices make a lot of sense. The technology areas and existing resources within each region make it necessary for different funding approaches to early stage funding. We should be supporting successful programs, as determined by technology transfer professional in those regions, not trying to pre-determine a singular approach.
Everyone has a story of a technology falling into the “Valley of Death” or being saved by some particular program, but we often forgot that not every technology is meant to survive. It was excellent to hear some of the witnesses provide longitudinal data on the success of early stage funding they already have in place.
For instance, Elizabeth Hart-Wells at Purdue provided excellent information on the success of licensing a technology conditional upon receiving funds from their existing Trask Fund (a 40% increase). Although one could suggest that the selection bias, as opposed to funding itself, may be responsible for this increase, these are difficult factors to untangle and still suggests that experienced technology transfer offices understand which technologies should be supported. As shown in data from Mowery, et. Al.,  office experience does in fact seem to have role in licensing outcomes.
As a former researcher of early stage technology funding programs and technology-based economic development initiatives I wanted to provide some additional data on early stage technology funding that supports the draft legislation. See linked white paper (“Publicly Funded TBED Programs and New Firm Survival”). Early stage technology commercialization funding is extremely valuable, especially early stage programs that target the “Valley of Death”, but the problems we have seen is that the funding programs creep toward the period when private investment can take place and work better when done in conjunction with the region.
I believe that by supporting programs within technology transfer offices we would help to control this tendency to shift investment toward later stage funding. Like the witnesses, I see the draft legislation as a great incentive for investment into technology commercialization programs at the stage it is needed the most.
 Mowery, David C., Bhaven N. Sampat, and Arvids A. Ziedonis. (2002). “Learning to patent: Institutional experience, learning, and t he characteristics of U.S. university patents after the Bayh-Dole act, 1981-1992.” Management Science, 48/1: 73-89.