A Dynamic Capability View on the Determinants of Superior Performance in University Technology Transfer Offices
24 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2014
Date Written: 2013
In addition to the more traditional mandates of teaching and research, universities have recently amplified their missions to become increasingly entrepreneurial (Siegel 2006). Academic entrepreneurship encompasses all the activities through which universities fulfil their ‘third mission’ (economic development): patenting, licensing, creating spin-offs, investing equity in start-ups, creating technology transfer offices (TTOs), incubators and science parks (Rothaermel et al. 2007). Within the broad field of university entrepreneurship, the analysis of the commercialization processes by technology transfer offices, usually the formal gateway between university and industry, focuses on the different mechanisms through which academic research and intellectual property (IP) is capitalized and commercially exploited. The topic of TTO productivity has been quite largely studied (Rothaermel et al. 2007). Prior research, in the attempt to identify the key determinants of technology transfer (TT) success, has mainly focused on the characteristics of inventions, such as patent protection and scope (e.g., Nerkar and Shane 2007; Shane 2002). Studies such as Hsu and Bernstein (1997), Chapple et al. (2005) and Thursby and Thursby (2002), however, have shown that the value of technologies is a not sufficient driver of TT success, as many worthy IP rights remain unlicensed. Indeed, due to high transaction costs characterizing the markets for technologies (Gambardella et al. 2007), only a minority of university inventions are transferred to the industry (Di Gregorio and Shane 2003). There is indeed a need to expand the search for performance determinants to other classes of factors (Rothaermel et al. 2007). Specifically, this chapter focuses on the management and organization of TT activities as key levers to overcome market failure and increase the productivity of TTOs. The study of these aspects is particularly critical because of the complexity of technology commercialization process, which occurs in conditions of high uncertainty. The embryonic and idiosyncratic nature of academic research makes it difficult to assess its commercialization potential (Ziedonis 2007). Also, the diversity of tasks involved in the TT process requires a broad range of competencies (Geuna and Muscio 2009), that is, technical, marketing, legal and proper organizational mechanisms to integrate such knowledge. The complexity of TT activities is reflected in the substantial heterogeneity of performance among the various universities (e.g., Chapple et al. 2005; Markman et al. 2005). By tackling the following research question, ‘How do different managerial and organizational approaches to technology transfer relate to different levels of performance?’, this chapter examines TT management and organization from a comprehensive standpoint. Adopting the dynamic capabilities perspective (Teece 2007) as theoretical lens, the chapter develops an interpretative framework, which aims to identify the managerial antecedents underlying superior capabilities in commercializing academic research. The model is then illustrated through the case of two Italian universities’ TTOs, which have been active in TT for many years with very different degree of success. This work contributes to the literature on university TT in several ways. Firstly, the use of qualitative research is quite original – quantitative empirical research based on survey and patent data tend to dominate this literature – and allows an in-depth illustration of the technology transfer process as a whole. Secondly, the comprehensive description of technology transfer microfoundations is particularly relevant both theoretically, to grasp the underlying mechanisms and process dynamics of TT, and practically, to ascertain implications for the commercialization of academic knowledge. The literature on university TT is gaining in importance in entrepreneurship and management research; a growing community of scholars is collecting extensive evidence, especially on transfer performance and efficiency, but most research has an anecdotal and practice-oriented nature. Few papers adopt well-defined theoretical frameworks to explain transfer dynamics, thus robustly contributing to the debate. Following recent calls for an investigation of capabilities and skills as organizational dimensions of TTOs (e.g., Chapple et al. 2005), this chapter is, to our best knowledge, among the first research work that adopts the dynamic capabilities approach to interpret the phenomenon of TT and to analyze its dynamics. Lastly, being our work based on a European Union (EU)-funded project, we follow Conti and Gaule (2011) who call for more investigation on the specificities of practices and performance of TTOs at the European level. The chapter is structured as follows. The next sections develop the theoretical framework, review the existing literature and describe the methodology employed. This is followed by a section reporting and discussing the findings from the case studies. Finally, conclusions are drawn and some avenues for future research are outlined.
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