Technology-transfer efforts at universities are in a fishbowl.

The fingers of critics in Congress and at the entrepreneurship think tank Kauffman Foundation tap the glass as they advocate stripping the monopoly authority granted tech-transfer offices by law for patent and license academic research. Some want to see more economic bang for the billions in federal bucks spent.

Todd Sherer, president of the Association of University Technology Managers, has heard the percussive beats. His response is that Washington and industry need to continue to invest in research because that's what drives innovation, and job growth. R&D spending at universities rose 4 percent to $61.4 billion in fiscal year 2011, and tech-transfer offices filed more patents, executed more licenses, and formed more start-ups than in 2010.

Though the goal of tech transfer is to mine academic research for new commercial products, stories about the campus roots of Gatorade, the hepatitis B vaccine, and Google's search engine have grown stale.

So with its annual survey of licensing activity, the university tech-transfer organization asked 305 institutions about their efforts in forming start-ups and their employment.

As often happens with a new question to an annual survey, response was a little light. Only 66 of the 186 institutions that responded to the survey supplied such data. Of those, their 1,731 start-ups still in operation reported employment of 24,653. Multiplying that 14.2-employee average by the total of 3,927 start-ups reported by all respondents works out to 55,929 employees.

The association also estimated the 9,145 licenses of university-born research that threw off royalty income in 2011 generated total product sales for corporations of about $120 billion last year.

Sherer hopes numbers like those will help make a better case for more research spending. It no longer suffices to tout how many thousands of pieces of paper were churned out, no matter how valuable that intellectual property may be.

Contact Mike Armstrong
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