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The October 2013 issue of NBIA Review explored the growing phenomenon of incubation programs that serve student-owned businesses. Our series on university-based incubation programs now explores programs focused on the commercialization of research conducted at the schools. While this kind of incubator has been around for decades, it has constantly evolved and innovated to meet client and market needs – never more so than now.

The university-incubation connection: a series
Part Two: Turning research into cash

January/February 2014

by Dennis E. Powell

The ever-evolving face of university tech transfer

NBIAWhen the Bayh-Dole Act became law in December 1980, it opened the potential for a broad new revenue stream for U.S. research universities.

That legislation ceded the intellectual property developed in federal-funded research to the institutions where the research took place, allowing small businesses or nonprofit organizations, including universities, to retain title to the inventions. Formulated to be an economic stimulant, the act, officially known as the Patent and Trademark Law Amendment Act, proved to be just that. In its first 30 years it resulted in the formation of more than 5,000 companies. Many or all of them licensed technology from the universities that now claimed rights to the newly developed technologies. Countless more existing companies also licensed the new technology to add to their existing product lines and methods or to form spinoffs to capitalize on the new research.

The new law spurred the creation of technology transfer offices. Very quickly, though, the researchers themselves – either faculty or research associates – sought to have a part in the commercialization of their work, and the potential for profit from it. Just as quickly, they discovered that the advantage they enjoyed in knowledge of the technology they had developed was surpassed by the disadvantage of not being experienced entrepreneurs. Fortunately, university-based business incubators also emerged in the 1980s, and they found a ready clientele in businesses arising from technology developed at their institutions.

Initially, the chief philosophical concern for incubator managers was whether to try to teach scientists and engineers how to be entrepreneurs, or to match the researchers with the right people to handle the business side of a new company. More than 30 years later, incubator managers still differ in their approach to this matter.

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Keywords: best practices, incubator management – general, client services – general, technology incubation, university partnerships

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