Technology Commercialization – Connective Tissue for a Modern Triple Helix

Technology Commercialization – Connective Tissue for a Modern Triple Helix

In thinking about how the university will look in 2040 I can’t help wonder about some of the earliest universities.  Beginning with University of Bologna in 1088, the nine oldest, continually operating universities were created over a 200-year period. Their histories reflect a glacial evolution.  Oxford University for example, founded circa 1096, first appointment of a female full professor was 1948.

These early universities were founded during the Middle Ages (500-1500).  It was an era of shifting geopolitical forces, sitting squarely between the Roman and Ottoman Empires in the West and a period of social, economic, and technological changes in the East. The Middle Ages witnessed extraordinary innovations that have stood the test of time, including the adoption of gunpowder, watermills and windmills, blast furnaces, agricultural processes like crop rotation, the printing press, mechanical clocks, astronomic and navigation tools, and eye glasses.  Commerce greatly expanded, with merchants deploying fleets of ships and caravans along major trade routes aided by banks and double entry bookkeeping.  Academics may not have contemplated the triple helix and yet they combined with government and industry to commercialize technologies in defense, energy, food supply, information distribution, measuring time and the universe, and medical devices.

Today, universities have become prolific at creating new ventures. In the U.S., universities have helped create more than 11,000 new ventures in the past 25 years¹. In this regard universities are giving rise to new industries and by extension giving rise to the need for new policy. By way of example, consider the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. Is it ethical to conduct war with drones? If and how should unmanned vehicles operate on our roads? Who is responsible for injuries attributed to unmanned vehicles? Who insures and pays for damages?

In 2007, Michael Porter, wrote “… higher education plays an important and growing role in regional economies—and the futures of our nation’s colleges and universities are inexorably tied to the health of their communities and regions. To best manage their role and fully leverage the surrounding economy to improve their own competitive position, university leaders need to understand the composition of the regional economy, and where the university can contribute…Higher education institutions also need to take a leadership role in ensuring public and private collaboration in developing and executing a regional economic plan that addresses weaknesses in the general business environment…”²

“Today, faculty and students increasingly desire to innovate and to see those innovations impact society for public good through commercialization and related social enterprises”

The creative freedoms enjoyed by university faculty and students will continue to sustain universities as central to innovation and knowledge commercialization. Industry, government and the citizens they serve look to universities as engines for economic development. A decade after Michael Porter’s argument, the U.S. government recently doubled down on this idea with its Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation3, which calls on U.S. universities to play a central role in technology commercialization and economic development.

I suspect by 2040 the debate over academia’s engagement with industry and government will cease and we’ll more often question how to better engage with the companies we’ve given rise to. How to leverage these relationships not solely for financial gain but for how the financial gain can be re-invested in pursuing the next innovation that can benefit society? We’re seeing the early threads of this discussion as universities are forming venture funds to invest in start-ups and have the returns be reinvested into future academic endeavors. Somehow, a university raising a venture capital fund still generates angst. But, imagine a day when a university venture fund accelerates innovation unencumbered by aspersions cast from the ivory tower, and heralded by a campus-wide dialogue about doing well by doing good.

This vision suggests universities must overcome the internal debate and bureaucracy around conflicts of interest, resource allocation, and related matters. Technology commercialization adds to challenges such as conflict of interest, yet universities increasingly see technology commercialization as a revenue vehicle that can address tightening budgets. In many ways these debates have been moving toward an inevitable outcome for years. That is, the 20th century university model is increasingly unsustainable. Operational costs have become difficult to sustain and students struggle to afford an education that has almost doubled in cost in just a single generation.4

Universities reflect the individuals who inhabit their halls. While these halls have historically been walked by many in pursuit of knowledge in its purest form, the halls of universities are increasingly inhabited by faculty and students with corporate, entrepreneurial and government experience. Universities have begun inviting industry partners to co-locate and conduct joint research and education. As universities accelerate their commercial pursuits, it is easy to see how these halls will soon house venture capitalists and entrepreneurs not as professors, but as staff directly charged with executing the third mission of universities – to engage in innovative and enterprise activities.

It would be overly convenient to suggest that by 2040 universities will somehow morph into quasi-corporate enterprises where commercial profit-making takes precedence over education and research. I don’t believe academic evolution will accelerate that quickly; and hopefully not ever. That said, by 2040 I can readily imagine a university campus where commercialization of scientific discovery forms the helix around which the rotating and evolving DNA strands of academia, industry, and government increasingly revolve. A campus that houses these stakeholder groups jointly in order to foster more creative and impactful solutions to health, ecological, and other societal challenges. Rather than academics independently pursuing research with the hope it can be commercialized to meet public need, why not incorporate entrepreneurs, investors, industry partners and government funders into the laboratory environment to imagine solutions together. By removing these upstream biases, we will remove the downstream debates over roles, regulations and ROI.

The founders of University of Bologna set the course for universities to serve at the center of the triple helix.  Nearly 1000 years later, I am awed by what has transpired and tremendously excited by what is to come.

¹ Highlights of AUTM’s U.S. Licensing Activity Survey FY2015, p2, 2016, AUTM

² Michael Porter, Colleges and Universities and Regional Economic Development:  A Strategic Perspective, Harvard Business School.  ©2007 Forum for the Future of Higher Education. Excerpted from Forum Futures 2007, Forum for the Future of Higher Education, Cambridge, Mass. library/pdf/ff0710s.pdf

³ Copan WG et al., Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce, December 2018

4 U.S. Department of Education, Fast Facts from the National Center for Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics (2018), Digest of Education Statistics, 2016 (NCES 2017094), Table 330.10 fastfacts/display.asp?id=76



Keith Marmer serves as executive director and associate vice president of the Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization at the University of Utah. In this role, he oversees more than 50 professionals responsible for all aspects of innovation management. Previously, Marmer was co-founder of SG3 Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund. Prior to SG3 Ventures, Marmer was chief business officer at Penn Center for Innovation, University of Pennsylvania. Before his university commercialization roles, Marmer was an entrepreneur who founded and scaled two companies and co-founded a consulting firm that advised early-stage growth companies. Across these roles, Marmer has helped more than 100 companies to raise over $1 billion in follow-on capital. Marmer serves on a number of boards and is a past entrepreneur-in-residence at Princeton University. Marmer received an MBA, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences from University of the Sciences

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