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Tech Transfer Process behind an Innovative University: The Case of the University of Vienna

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In this article, UIIN – Lehigh University Iacocca Scholars Tori Campbell and Jessica Osgoodby share with the UIIN readers their impressions and highlights of their recent interview with Tom Withnell, Technology Transfer Office Manager at the University of Vienna.

Innovation is occurring in every technical field imaginable. From health and medicine to engineering, academics are discovering new information – information that has the potential to change the world. While our knowledge base increases, it is necessary to distribute it in a way that produces the greatest positive impact.

Each day, the Tech Transfer Office at the University of Vienna is confronted with new tasks. While academics are praised for their research, there is much more behind the scenes that has to occur before this newfound knowledge can be put to use. Tom Withnell, an electrical power engineer, along with three other staff members in his office are responsible for helping academics commercialize their ideas. His technical background helps him to better understand the ideas that are being pushed forward in his office. “Having a technical background is important. It doesn’t matter what it is in as long as you are able to think technically,” says Withnell. However, this is not an easy task to undertake. Technology from world leaders in their fields can be quite complicated to understand fully. Each day is a new learning experience; Withnell must research topics intensely in order to understand how to best move the idea towards fruition. However, he also understands that it is not always best to ask too many questions about specific details of an idea. According to Withnell, “Don’t worry about how it works. It works, and that’s what you need to sell.” Whether or not an idea works and is original are the most important aspects of receiving a patent.

Why is the tech transfer office necessary?

Innovation sounds glamourous, but if not for the years of paperwork and tiny details that must be figured out, we would never be able to experience its immense value. Solely writing a paper about research findings will not guarantee that people will see it. As much work that goes into creating a new invention, much of it would be lost in the system without proper protection, for example patents, and industrial partners or contacts to help bring an idea to fruition.

Unfortunately, the work done by the Tech Transfer Office often goes unappreciated. Due to the fact that academics are at the top of the hierarchy in the Austrian system and the tech transfer process is still a fairly new one, many do not understand the value that it holds. In older universities, where the faculty are more set in their ways, this standpoint is more apparent. The University of Vienna is over 650 years old whilst the Tech Transfer office is under 15 years old, which means many of the faculty have been there much longer than the office has existed.

How is success measured?

As far as the success of the Tech Transfer Office, it is quite difficult to measure numerically whether or not they are successful. It is not very straightforward what should be counted as an achievement. The ministry asks for yearly data, but this data does not always give a meaningful picture of each Tech Transfer Office’s achievements. This could be measured with licenses or patents, but these can take years to be fully realized. There are difficulties with the time taken for patents to be granted; a process which can take over 10 years. The patent highway scheme offers the opportunity to reduce this time to grant, making it more complicated to report up-to-date statistics for Tech Transfer Offices.

Steps moving forward

In the future, in order for the Tech Transfer Office to have the greatest possible impact in the world, the culture surrounding it needs to change. It has the potential to push and drive innovation forward, but only if people recognize that sharing their research findings for societal gain is achievable, in parallel to publishing and obtaining recognition as an innovative researcher in their field. Until then, it will be an important uphill battle to overcome.

©all rights on images used in this article belong to University of Vienna/Peter Wienerroither