Adrian Sigrist, you established the technology transfer office Unitectra in 1999, together with Herbert Reutimann. Looking back, what has changed since then?
Adrian Sigrist: Back then technology transfer was much less relevant a topic for researchers and in the Executive Board of the University. There was no established way of doing things, so we had to improvise. When I wanted to register the first patent for UZH, I sent a fax to Clive Kuenzle, who was Vice President Research at the time. An hour later, President Hans-Heinrich Schmid called me on the phone to tell me that Clive Kuenzle was off on vacation, but we could go ahead with registering the patent anyway. When UZH’s first spin-off Prionics was founded, the Cantonal Minister of Education Ernst Buschor even reviewed the business plan himself.
What about today?
There are established technology transfer processes. This is important for many researchers who come to university. We get queries from professors who are in appointment negotiations and want to know how UZH handles technology transfer and whether we can support them.
Unitectra’s list of achievements is impressive (see box). In your opinion, what are the three most important factors for the success of a technology transfer office?
The researchers play the most important part. Technology transfer needs researchers who are keen to have their technologies put into practice. Without their work, there’s nothing to transfer. A technology transfer organization must also be focused on finding solutions, and facilitate transfer rather than stand in its way. That is not to say there aren’t limits. Sometimes you have to be prepared to say “no”. Finally, support from the Executive Board of the University is crucial. We’re very grateful that we’ve had their support in all these years.
You said that a technology transfer office sometimes has to be able to say “no”. What do you mean by that?
As a university technology transfer office, Unitectra has to serve the interests of the university as a whole and do what’s best for transferring the technology in question. This may sound simple, but it’s not always so straightforward in practice. The needs and interests of the involved parties are diverse and sometimes conflicting. The researchers expect Unitectra to do what’s best for them, while company founders want what’s best for their spin-offs, and industry partners in turn want to secure the most advantageous conditions for licensing and research agreements. Unitectra can’t accommodate each and every request; we can’t be everybody’s darling. Our main concern is to make sure that the interests of the university and its members are taken into account.
What’s important when it comes to licensing a technology?
Universities practice technology transfer above all so that society can benefit from the products and services that develop out of commercially viable research findings that are funded by taxpayers. Licenses have to be designed in a way that facilitates the commercialization of a technology, and they shouldn’t contain any obstacles. On the other hand, when it comes to licenses, universities are actors on the free market and thus potentially competing with existing businesses. This is why UZH has to adopt an entrepreneurial frame of mind and award licenses in a way that conforms to usual conditions to avoid allegations of market distortion. What’s more, it has to be possible to revoke a license if the licensee doesn’t use the technology and lets it go to waste.
What role do spin-off companies play for Unitectra’s business?
Spin-offs are very important for us. Commercializing university research findings is tricky, because it’s usually a very long path until you arrive at a marketable product. It’s not always possible to convince an industry partner to invest large sums into developing a product. There are often too many risks and imponderables. This is why in many cases awarding the license to a newly founded company is the only way forward. These spin-off companies attempt to raise the necessary funds from specialized lenders that are prepared to bear the high risks.
You’ve negotiated 18,000 research agreements so far. What do you consider particularly important here?
Research cooperations greatly benefit UZH, and this goes beyond the financial aspects. The expertise flows both ways and interesting research topics with direct links to current issues can be tackled. Of course, the interests of industry are different to those in academia. That’s why it’s our job to make sure that the interests and liberties of the university and its members are protected.
You’ve been involved right from the start. Unitectra’s co-founder Herbert Reutimann retired last year. How do you see the future of Unitectra?
Unitectra doesn’t need to be reorganized, which is why I don’t want to change things up too much. Nevertheless, a change in management is an opportunity to challenge old habits and find ways of improving certain things. That’s what I’m doing, together with the new management, which includes Associate Director Wolfgang Henggeler, who heads up the physical sciences team, Head of Contract Management Franziska Weise, and Daniel Gisi, who leads the life sciences team. They’ve all worked for Unitectra for more than 15 years. Together, we have more than 70 years’ experience in technology transfer, and this is a great asset.
20 Years of Unitectra
In the past 20 years, Unitectra:
• negotiated 18,000 research agreements
• evaluated 2,000 invention disclosures
• registered 1,200 patents
• concluded 1,000 licensing and option agreements
- accompanied the foundation of over 200 spin-off companies
- No. of employees at present: FTE 12.8
- No. of employees in 1999: FTE 4.6