Technology transfer as a recognised profession in Malaysia

The technology transfer landscape in Malaysia is in its developmental phase and the same is true for a majority of other ASEAN countries.
The technology transfer landscape in Malaysia is in its developmental phase and the same is true for a majority of other ASEAN countries.

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 4 — In the academic sector, the process of commercialisation or bringing technologies to the marketplace is known as technology transfer. Technology transfer is now part of the government’s mandate for institutions receiving federal funding for research. Most commonly, technology transfer is accomplished through licensing intellectual property rights (IPRs) to companies that have the resources and desire to develop and produce the technology for specific applications. In return, universities receive payments (in the form of cash fees, equity and/or royalties on earned revenues) for the products or services that were licensed. The income to the university is distributed according to each university’s policy, but it includes compensation to inventors and a mechanism for channeling income back into the research programs of the university.

Universities have long established units called Technology Transfer Offices to provide platforms for transfer of technologies developed within the university to industry. It is the function of these offices to receive invention disclosures from scientists and technologists, to evaluate the disclosures for merit as well as the type of intellectual property protection that is most appropriate, to see that the proper filings or registrations are carried out, to market the inventions to potential commercial partners through licensing efforts, to monitor the patent filings and license agreements, and to ensure compliance with Bayh-Dole reporting requirements. Additionally, technology transfer offices are often responsible for other kinds of agreements related to intellectual property and proprietary information and materials.

The Malaysian and Asean Scenario

The technology transfer landscape in Malaysia is in its developmental phase and the same is true for a majority of other Asean countries. Many Asean member states have identified the importance of technology transfer and its relevance in the formation of a knowledge-based economy. Many innovations that are being generated at research organisations, as well as industry, do not find their way to the market for various reasons. Some of the reasons are outlined below:

•              Not market-driven

Most solutions created at research organisations do not address a real market need. As such these projects are solutions created in search of problems. Such solutions need to be ‘pushed’ into the marketplace by the universities via matchmaking efforts. Most often, these innovations do not find big enough problems to ‘fit’ themselves into as they are not market-driven.

•              Lack of skilled personnel

There is a significant lack of qualified and skilled personnel to facilitate technology transfer. This group of personnel - known as Technology Transfer Managers - are individuals who work in technology transfer offices of universities and other organisations who look into new invention disclosures and assess them for commercial viability. Technology transfer managers need to be skilled and well versed in many areas such as invention disclosure assessment, IPRs, marketing technologies, negotiation of deals, basics of license agreements and spinout company formation. It takes years for an individual to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to become a ‘polished’ technology transfer manager.  Currently, individuals with such skills are scarce in the Malaysian and the Asean landscape.

•              Measurement of success through metrics that are not direct indicators of impact

Many governments and organisations across the world have been utilising metrics that are not true indicators of success in measuring the impact of technology transfer. These include the number of patents filed, number of spin-out companies created etc. Such gaps can be seen in many countries where the numbers have only led to the disappointment of impact seekers. Much education needs to be deployed in measuring the true impact of technology transfer and to determine its spillover effects to an economy.

•              Misaligned intellectual property protection regime

Although many governments support innovation and commercialisation for driving themselves towards the formation of a knowledge-based economy, most policies and regimes put in place does not support this. Intellectual property protection policies and regimes are some of the most important ones amongst them. High costs of patent filings and lack of awareness on IPRs can lead to devastating results. Such misaligned policies and regimes can lead to IPRs not being thoroughly protected which will pose a serious threat to the national intellectual capital. Furthermore, lack of IP awareness can lead to significant losses in the marketplace due to copying and infringement.

•              Organisational policies and standards

IP and commercialisation processes must be governed and executed via clear policies in organisations creating new knowledge. Such clear and aligned policies will encourage and incentivise researchers and innovators to keep innovating consistently. It will also encourage them to develop some of the skills required for innovation commercialisation from concept to market entry. Most organisations in the Malaysian and Asean landscape lack such policies that are clear and aligned with the organisational mission. Such poor policies can discourage new invention disclosures and therefore lower rates of R&D commercialisation with commercial viability.

The pressing need

Technology transfer managers focus on commercialising the outcomes of university research in many disciplines. The key responsibilities of a technology transfer manager are:

•              Working with academic researchers to commercialise new university technologies in the areas of commercialisable research.

•              Identifying commercial strategies for transferring technologies to industry, including supporting proof-of-concept activities and marketing to potential end-users.

•              Negotiating appropriate licensing contracts, in conjunction with legal experts.

•              Managing the creation of spin-out companies and supporting a culture of entrepreneurship within the University and local innovation ecosystem.

•              Ensuring technology transfer activities support the generation of research ‘impact’ by university researchers.

•              Many successful technology transfer managers will have an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate degree and high-quality commercial experience in the industry and have the ambition to achieve results, along with a commitment to integrity and sound commercial judgment. An additional qualification in business would be an additional benefit to their day-to-day job performance.

Successful technology transfer managers also demonstrate proven competence in:

•              Grasping technical concepts quickly, and translating these into commercially viable proposals.

•              Working effectively with key stakeholders, assertively influencing them and where appropriate showing tenacity and persistence in business development situations.

•              Deploying excellent interpersonal and communication skills, both verbally and in writing.

•              Successfully negotiating and licensing commercial contracts with industry.

•              Working successfully within a close-knit team.

•              Managing a large portfolio of complex projects to a successful commercial conclusion.

Most technology transfer offices/platforms    

of research organisations in the Asean region are lacking trained and accredited individuals with the skills mentioned above to deliver on knowledge and technology transfer requirements. The lack of expertise is crippling the transfer of knowledge and innovations from research organisations to the industry. It has further resulted in reduced commercialisation rate in terms of the number of innovations that are protected and the number of innovations transferred to industry or another entity for further development and commercialisation.

There is no typical pathway into a technology-transfer role and less-tangible abilities, such as communication and people skills, could be the primary factor to succeed in the field. People need to be good at having consultations with scientists, turning over rocks and introducing researchers from industry to academic researchers. The development of skill set relating to technology transfer and commercialisation has become a pressing need to Malaysia and the ASEAN region. Many state governments are currently pushing their national agenda towards innovation and commercialisation which has spurred talent development in the industry with recognition from organisations such as the Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals (ATTP). The mission of ATTP is to provide public recognition and acknowledgment of technology/knowledge transfer professionals, with demonstrated competency, based on internationally recognised standards. In Malaysia, we have the Innovation and Technology Managers Association (ITMA), an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that serves as a platform for Innovation and Commercialization Center (ICC) for universities in Malaysia. It aims to share the best practices and explore opportunities to combine Intellectual Properties of commercialization initiatives in order to generate better technologies to succeed in the market.

PlaTCOM Ventures Sdn Bhd, the national technology commercialisation platform in collaboration with the British Council, the Newton Ungku-Omar Fund, Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM) and ITMA will be paving the path in Malaysia to establish technology transfer as a recognised profession.

For more information, please contact [email protected].