Diversifying technology transfer tools to increase the impact of academic research

Posted in: Education, Science and research policy

Julieta Arancio is a Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the University of Bath.

Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) at universities play a key role in increasing the impact of academic work. By translating cutting-edge research into ready-to-adopt formats for business and industry, they are in a unique position to foster practices that accelerate innovation.

However, the current patent-and-license paradigm adopted by most TTOs around the world is missing opportunities for impact. Research that falls out of the patent-and-license scope is one example; another one is the increasing number of researchers who want to engage in technology transfer by other means.

An alternative model for technology transfer

Recently, a young movement of scientists around the world began advocating for TTOs to include open hardware licenses in their toolbox. They argue that researchers increasingly need TTOs support for making their work impactful, but through an open model that promotes early adoption and allows co-creation of technology.

Open hardware - or open-source hardware - is one model of technology transfer whereby designs for hardware are shared openly online for anyone to freely use, modify, and commercialise. Open hardware is not as familiar for the public as open-source software, partly due to its more recent history. Although many differences exist in practice, open-source software principles are useful to understand open hardware.

In open-source software the developer makes the source code of their programme publicly available. In open hardware, the developers also share the source of their devices - in this case a collection of design files that allow others to build and modify their creations. According to the open hardware definition: "Open-source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

Today, people can design, test, and publish their creations on the web thanks to advances in digital manufacturing, software development for hardware production, and increased internet access. If the designs are properly documented and licensed, they can be replicated and modified in different settings around the world. In successful implementations of open hardware projects, as a result, online communities emerge to exchange lessons and knowledge from their building or using experiences.

A growing trend

Science tools today are a black box - users don’t have access to their designs or are not allowed to modify them. Not being able to access or modify a design makes it difficult to customise it, involving delays and often prohibitive costs. This is particularly harmful in science, as new research questions often demand changes in experimental settings. Moreover, advances in science instruments often build on previous work, so black box designs force developers to duplicate efforts every time they want to improve a tool.

The complete dependence on vendors that emerges as a result increases risk and lowers performance of research, motivating many researchers to create their own tools and openly license them. The OpenFlexure project is a salient example of open hardware in science: an openly licensed 3D-printed microscope that democratises access to high-spec optics around the world. It is developed by researchers at the University of Bath, the same place where the RepRap project kicked off the 3D-printing revolution 16 years ago.

Richard Bowman started the project in 2015 as a side project, to explore how much of the mechanics of a microscope could be 3D-printed as one block to reduce the time and effort in reproducing the design. However, OpenFlexure quickly took over his research agenda, and grew into a global community of users and developers including professional scientists, hobbyists, community scientists, clinical researchers, and teachers, among others.

OpenFlexure is one of many open hardware projects for science, in disciplines that span from nanotechnology to environmental monitoring. During the last five years, the academic production of open hardware has dramatically increased, with the emergence of transnational networks, specialised publication venues, peer-reviewed literature, and dedicated events.

Business models based on open hardware are also becoming more visible. Prusa, a company selling personal 3D printers to over 130 countries, made over €33M in revenue in 2017 and around €72M in 2019, with an overall estimated valuation of €236 million (2016). Adafruit Industries, an open hardware design and manufacturing company with over 100 employees, has grown over 700% for three years in a row, making more than $45M in revenue in 2016. New projects are constantly emerging, with over 1500 certified initiatives from upwards of 40 countries.

In this flourishing context, most TTOs currently have no methods in place for keeping track of open hardware developments taking place at their own institutions, or their reach and impact.

How can TTOs seize open hardware potential?

Early in 2021, the global Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) convened a session to discuss recommendations towards open hardware adoption in academia. The workshop gathered open hardware developers, maintainers, researchers, and representatives from TTOs. The main ideas emerging - from an ensuing policy brief - included:

  1. Increasing awareness and understanding of open hardware at TTOs is critical to support open hardware research and development in academia. This includes understanding the conditions under which open licenses are more appropriate than proprietary schemes and vice versa, clarifying attribution and commercial use when using open licenses and becoming familiar with successful open hardware stories. TTOs can collaborate with the open hardware community in producing tailored communication materials that facilitate the adoption of open licenses in the academic context. TTOs can also benefit from joining a network to exchange lessons and increase visibility of their innovative approaches to technology transfer.
  2. Identifying and promoting open hardware champions in academia can set up focal points for discussing technology transfer aspects in practice. Acting as translators between TTOs and the open hardware community, these open hardware champions can also advance other benefits to their institutions, such as helping attract and retain hardware engineering and research talent.
  3. TTOs are in a unique position to pursue research on open hardware. TTOs and open hardware champions can work on developing a solid set of quantitative and qualitative, easy-to-build metrics that allow to track impact of open hardware. Curating and generating datasets on the impact and revenue generated by proprietary and open innovations from public institutions would contribute to making evidence-based strategic decisions.
  4. Aligning high-level university policy and leadership discourse with TTO internal policy and incentives is key for effective open hardware support. TTO key performance indicators (KPIs) such as revenue, number of patents filed, or licenses agreed are based on the Intellectual Property model. Although not incompatible with open hardware licensing and its commercialisation, they do not easily align with the goals of open licensing. Explicit linking of TTO activities to the university mission of benefiting society can support the transition towards open hardware licenses adoption.


Science infrastructure for impactful innovation 

The experience of open hardware early adopters demonstrates it is a useful tool to foster mission-oriented, impactful multi-scale collaborations between academia, civil organisations, governments, and industry. TTOs at universities are in a privileged position to foster open hardware adoption at universities, a relevant source of designs, increasing the impact of existing research.

Moving from a patentable/non-patentable paradigm to a diversified portfolio that includes open hardware licenses opens new concrete pathways for connecting universities and society in a meaningful way. Collaborations with the open hardware community can facilitate this transition; existing standards and certification programmes can help reduce the time spent by TTO personnel in the process.

The momentum open science is gaining worldwide shows researchers and society are collectively ready for a different future for science, one that leads to better access, transparency, and collaboration. Universities can start working on that future today by including open hardware as a tool for TTOs, aligning funding and incentives, and raising awareness through research, education, and training initiatives. These are concrete steps that can turn open hardware into a pillar strategy towards the collaborative science and innovation we urgently need.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Education, Science and research policy


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