In reality, academic inventions are rare, the private sector in the US instead funds almost all applied science and half of basic research. And before they happen there are often large teams with long cycles of testing, validation and regulatory approvals before they can be turned into something useful, such as a new vaccine. Since inventions are not the strong suit of universities, how do technology transfer offices pick and choose winners to support?
In a new study published in Research Policy, the authors investigated how university-based academic inventions - are selected to receive support. Using a quantitative, top-down, textual analytical technique, the researchers studied nearly 700 invention evaluation reports from the oldest university technology transfer office in the world, over a seven-year period from 1998 to 2005. These are three- to four-page reports on the commercial potential of the invention, written by a member of the technology transfer office with domain knowledge.
"There are two dimensions that our evaluators think about - feasibility and desirability. Feasibility is whether the outcome can be achieved, and desirability is how useful the invention is, whether it can change people's lives," said Associate Professor Reddi Kotha from the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University.
Considering that the majority of bets seldom yield positive returns, seeking out the most promising proposals could make a significant difference to an organisation's success. And university groups clearly preferred confidence rather than the usual conservative nature of science.
In terms of feasibility, their study showed that text that indicated doubt and lack of maturity was associated with a 10% decline and 15% decline in budgetary support, respectively. In terms of desirability, background familiarity and scientific complexity was associated with a 13% and 10% improvement in budgetary support, respectively.
"If you want to study uncertainty, there is no better place to study it than very, very early stage scientific inventions. You have to imagine its potential to many different industries, and you also have to imagine all the development that is required to turn it into products and services. There is very little information to make the decision, making it quite a 'leap of faith'," notes Kotha.
What does this mean? From a realistic view, if it were easy to write about successful proposal selection venture capitalists wouldn't lose their money 70 percent of the time on average (which means a lot lose their money all of the time, even though they were smart enough to get it in the first place.) A leap of faith on perpetual motion is a waste of time, as is believing an obscure roundworm study will lead to short term results. Leaps of faith have an element of common sense also.
(1) Sometimes that gets a twist. In "Godzilla: King of the Monsters", ecoterrorists release giant monsters because humanity (except for ecoterrorists, of course) is a plague and the vaccine is other monsters. Namely Godzilla.
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