NC1100: Land Grant University Innovation Diffusion Enhancement
(Multistate Research Project)
NC1100: Land Grant University Innovation Diffusion Enhancement
Duration: 10/01/2015 to 09/30/2020
Statement of Issues and Justification
This project will identify and develop new strategies to increase the efficiency of agricultural innovation diffusion systems. Our focus is on systems for transferring innovation from universities to firms. Our basic approach is to engage participants with a technology-assisted faculty/investor matching program. Our target scientist will be a faculty member with promising new technology that could be applied in the agricultural sector.
There are many barriers to matching faculty with investors and/or firms interested in technology commercialization. First, for faculty, they may not be familiar with the industry where the technology could be applied. Faculty may not have experience or interest in “selling” their technologies. Furthermore, in some disciplines, faculty promotion and tenure decisions, as well as annual merit reviews can be tied to patent activity, such that incentives to patent are potentially driven by internal concerns rather than strict assessment of future commercial viability (Bercovitz and Feldman 2006; Bozeman 2000; Siegel et al. 2003). Second, from the university side, their intellectual property (IP) systems may discourage moving certain types of IP to market due to perceived high costs if there is not a clear and obvious path to success or if the tech transfer office lacks contacts in the appropriate sector (Debackere and Vergeulers 2005; Kenney and Patton 2009; 2011; Markman et al. 2005; O’Shea et al. 2005; Thursby et al. 2001). Through interacting with faculty before, during, and after the commercialization process we hope to better understand incentive systems and how they influence faculty behavior.
The challenge is to build better systems to match the researcher with rural firm owners, entrepreneurs, and investors who are positioned to move the innovation into the market. While researchers may have insights into potential users and some applications of their work which can also increase commercialization success (Hall and Link 2015), they may not have time or inclination to seek out or fully engage those contacts. Similarly, potential users of agriculture-related technology may not know where to enter the system, especially if the scientist who has something appropriate to their part of the agricultural sector is operating several states away and in a highly specialized field that is virtually unknown to most lay people. Land-grant universities are large, with many quasi-independent research activities, so it is difficult for a rural firm owner to know who to ask. These rural companies and entrepreneurs may, therefore, become frustrated in working with research entities. In short, the scientists with new innovations or the producer with a specialized need may not be able to navigate all the possible routes to effectively make available or possess an appropriate innovation. This leads to the well-known “Valley of Death”, in which good science is not taken up by society as rapidly or widely as its potential (Wolf et al., 2013). Society thus misses some feasible benefits that could arise from the research it has funded, which greatly impacts rural development and potentially also public willingness in continuing to support the research.
In summary, society will be better served by its investments in Land Grant research as a result of this project. A better understanding of the goals, incentives, and barriers various participants in the technology diffusion process experience will lead to recommendations for streamlining the system to improve the speed up technology uptake. Some short term impacts include earned media for the featured scientists and their institutions, and feedback to faculty on how to explain their innovations to potential investors.
Related, Current and Previous Work
The goal of this project is to add new dimensions to our framework for understanding determinants of regional innovation aptitude by identifying and developing alternative strategies to increase the efficiency of innovation systems and broaden the range of persons using university-developed innovations. Our focus is on systems for transferring innovation from land-grant universities to agricultural and rural firms.
Faculty interested in commercializing their technologies are frequently unfamiliar with the challenges entrepreneurs face and may get frustrated or discouraged, potentially giving up (Shane 2004; Grimaldi et al. 2011). From the outside firm perspective, navigating university IP systems can be costly (Siegel et al. 2004). Uncertainty regarding technology availability, its clear applications in the market, and implementation costs act as deterrents from further development, adoption, or other use. These challenges are especially important for young and small firms. It may be that universities strategies, which one might framed as “if we build it they will come,” hinders uptake of innovations (National Research Council 2010).
Many universities attempt to address these concerns by establishing research parks. In the previous project, we learned that outcomes associated with a research park strategy are mixed (Kilkenny, 2011; personal communications between Mann and faculty-researchers under the prior project). One model, identified by Kilkenny (2011) under this project, has the university park recruiting only those firms with pre-existing connections to faculty research. While Kilkenny’s assessment was that this model appears to be more strategic than most, it raises the question of how to establish the faculty-firm connection in the first place.
It is generally understood that there are differences in rates of innovation adoption based on a wide range of firm characteristics, such as firm industry, urban vs. rural firms, firm age, experience of firm creators, firm size and technological regime, and firm proximity to universities (Kenney and Mowery 2014). Understanding contextual variables that lead to greater interaction is paramount to facilitating technology transfer.
Firm interactions with universities also improve firms’ abilities to connect problems in the market place to potential innovations developed by the universities (Kenney and Mowery 2014). Ironically, firms may not realize the benefits from these interactions with universities. Howell et al. (2012) reported that firms place a low value on the impacts of university technology transfer and partnerships, yet firms were shown to greatly benefit from these relationships. In short, this value is not necessarily translated into appreciation. The result is that firms may often be reluctant to enter into relationships with universities, even when there is a potential benefit to the firms.
From our preliminary surveys and interviews of stakeholder participating in the earlier iteration of the technology-assisted faculty/investor matching program, we gained insights and identified potential areas for improvement. First, the majority (> 70%) of rural firm owners and entrepreneurs who participated in our surveys reported that they are not familiar with the university technology transfer process. For example, “My experience is some people who have good ideas are not familiar with how to explain their ideas to others, especially to academic types. There are no bad guys in this situation, just inefficient communication” (consultant in agriculture). Given the opportunity, however, about 80% report that they would be interested in engaging in the technology transfer process, especially if they better understood it. For example, “We've gone to grant and marketing conferences offered by universities, but found there is little help for small producers” (firm owner in agriculture). Of those who have engaged with university technology transfer representatives, about 20% reported having less than a favorable experience. Second, through our interactions with seed and early stage investors, particularly in agricultural technologies, we identified potential differences in expectations about returns on investments (ROIs). Investors from non-agriculture sectors are accustomed to quick returns on investments and quick exit strategies, which are atypical among agricultural technology startups (Estes, 2014). There are also different levels of uncertainly as to whether the time interval on the expected ROI will change anytime soon given the recent sharp increase in investments in agricultural technologies (Schoppe 2015; Pitchbook 2015).
One potential solution to this dilemma is to provide support to faculty regarding their individual development of entrepreneurial skills related to commercializing innovations they produce (D'Este et al. 2012; Rasmussen et al. 2014). In such cases where support was provided, spin-offs were much more successful. Further, collaboration with firms also helps provide faculty with the skills to navigate risky and complex business ventures, and faculty with a wider range of scientific skills are more apt to develop the necessary entrepreneurial skills to engage in successful ventures. However, more research is needed to explore this avenue.
Following Nelson’s (2012) call for a more comprehensive framework of university innovation systems, our goal in this project is to help fill in the gaps of understanding by facilitating, and then following, the interactions that occurs between firms, faculty, and administrators in the innovation diffusion process. By developing relationships with each group of stakeholders and as we immerse ourselves in this process, we will have a unique opportunity to make observations and collect data. During the course of our observations, we will gain knowledge regarding the interactions between firm owners and faculty, faculty and administrators, and firm owners and universities. Additionally, because our data pool will consist of the same unique groups of firms, faculty, administrators, and universities we will be able to connect the individuals in each group to the range of interactions. For example, we can connect a particular firm owner’s interactions with a faculty member to that same firm owner’s interaction with and perception of the university. We will also be able to follow firms as they learn about new technologies and, potentially, as they initiate the process of adopting and implementing them. Similarly, we will be able to follow faculty as they present their technologies to the point where substantive firm interactions begin to occur. Finally, The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) recently published a list of institutions designated as “Innovation & Economic Prosperity Universities,” and part of the criteria included evaluating universities’ efforts related to technology transfer. The APLU criteria can potentially serve as a metric for a comparison of other policy recommendations we identify in our study.
Determine incentives, barriers, experiences, and preferences regarding stakeholder participation in the technology transfer of land-grant developed agricultural technologies.
Assess the effectiveness of new and revised systems to exchange knowledge and innovation between researchers and stakeholders, especially regarding innovation adoption and implementation by intermediate and end users.
Identify policy changes at the institutional, regional, and federal level that could speed adoption of innovations that are potentially beneficial to stakeholders.
Explore virtual coaching, social media and other virtual technology vehicles as methods to gain stakeholder trust and participation for research on preferences for technology transfer mechanisms.
MethodsWe will explore constraints of current land-grant innovation systems from the perspective of the intermediate and end users of the technology (e.g., firms, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists), the developers of the technology (university faculty and researchers). We will engage the participants in facilitated web-dialog about available land grant technologies as a way of garnering good will and personal connections that can translate into more frank sharing of constraints and concerns than might otherwise be possible. We will also scan the environment for new communications tools and innovative university-based practices to improve technology transfer. Finally, we will use econometric methods to study relationships between policies and outcomes. Objective 1. Determine incentives, barriers, experiences, and preferences regarding stakeholder participation in the technology transfer of land-grant developed agricultural technologies. Three survey instruments will be constructed for each stakeholder group that we engage through the researcher/investor matching process: 1) rural firms, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and communities (survey 1); faculty conducting research at North Central land-grant universities (survey 2); and 3) North Central land-grant university research administrators and technology transfer offices (survey 3). Survey 1 will include a choice experiment and questions about demographic information and experience with universities and technology transfer. The sample population will consist of rural firm owners, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and community leaders randomly drawn from the network of 15,000 participants constructed in the earlier phase of this project. This will include individuals who have and have not participated in the live webinars. Survey 2 will occur on a “rolling basis” and include pre- and post-webinar interviews of faculty presenters where faculty will be asked about their experiences with and preferences for innovation diffusion systems. Questions will be developed based on prior webinar feedback, as well as from members of the project team which include two previous webinar presenters (Kenney and Ladisch). Survey 3 will include interviews with NC AES administrators in which they will be asked questions about their experiences with and preferences for university-based innovation systems. We will also collect institutional data on intellectual property practices for integration into databases to be analyzed econometrically. By quantifying the experiences via survey techniques, we hope to be able to draw conclusions on how to best speed up the transfer of technologies to end users in rural areas. Objective 2. Identifying institutional, state, and federal level policy changes that could speed adoption of innovations that are potentially beneficial to rural firms, communities, and North Central land-grant universities. An econometric analysis of all primary and secondary data collected during this project will be conducted. This may include additional follow up interviews of each stakeholder group. We will also use agency data to analyze the effectiveness of existing tech transfer programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Preliminary analysis of the SBIR program shows that a few firms have successfully competed for hundreds of awards over the past fifteen years of the program. The implications of this distribution of awards will be explored. More generally, empirical evidence of the effectiveness of state and university policies will help formulate recommendations to speed up technology transfer for rural development. Objective 3. Exploring coaching and social media vehicles as methods to gain North Central faculty and rural firm decision-maker trust and participation for research on preferences for technology transfer mechanisms. Our approach to the faculty/investor matching process involves considerable coaching of the faculty-presenters. Qualitative and quantitative analyses will be conducted based on: 1) additional questions in the surveys used to accomplish objectives one and two; and 2) data from the post-webinar survey used for improving webinar marketing. The results will be integrated into a web-based training program for faculty interested in commercializing their work with the ultimate goal of making the technology faculty are developing more accessible to rural firms.
Measurement of Progress and Results
- 50 webinars linking faculty-researchers with potential users of technology
- Webinar training series for faculty entrepreneurs
- Summary webinar of project activities
- Proposal to USDA and NSF for additional funding
- White paper with recommendations for AES administrators
- At least three peer-reviewed journal articles will be produced from objective 1: i. Rural firm owners, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and community leaders perspective. (Target: J. Entrepreneurship and Public Policy) ii. Faculty-entrepreneur perspective. (Target: The Journal of Technology Transfer) iii. Administrator perspective (Target: Research Policy) At least one peer-reviewed journal article will be produced from Objective 2. Target: Telecommunications Policy. At least one peer-reviewed journal article will be produced from objective 3. Target: Industrial and Corporate Change. e. At least one peer-reviewed journal article will be produced from objective 4. Target: Journal of Extension.
Outcomes or Projected Impacts
- Matches between featured faculty and investors
- Improved ability of faculty to explain their work to investors
- Ideas for improved practices in university tech transfer
- Earned media (featured research picked up in trade journals and AES annual reports
Milestones(0): 10 faculty technology webinars; one training; surveys and analysis. Conference papers.
(0): 10 faculty technology webinars; one training; surveys and analysis; administrator survey. Secondary data analysis.
(0): 10 faculty technology webinars; one training; surveys and analysis; administrator survey.
(0): 10 faculty technology webinars; one training; surveys and analysis. White paper. Conference papers. Journal submissions.
(0): 10 faculty technology webinars; one training; surveys and analysis. White paper.Journal article revisions. Summary webinar.
Projected ParticipationView Appendix E: Participation
This project follows the classic Land Grant approach of engagement, reflection, research, and re-engagement. A major platform for our outreach is the webinar series which provides the foundation for the research. As stated previously, our goal is to reach 100,000 individuals with interests in LGU-developed agricultural innovations. The interactions with faculty researchers and potential end-users will inform recommendations for enhancing the speed of uptake of LGU innovations related to agriculture. These findings will be offered to APLU, AES administrators and also submitted to peer-reviewed journals in related disciplines.
The North Central Regional Center for Rural Development will provide coordination services for the multi-state project. Dialog and consensus modes will be used to form work teams and execute joint projects.
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. (2014, July 10). APLU announces designation of 14 institutions as innovation & economic prosperity universities. Retrieved from http://www.aplu.org/page.aspx?pid=3005
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