Monthly Archives: January 2014

Academia vs. Commerce: Bridging the Cultural Divide

Academia is the world of universities and research organizations that focus on publication and the dissemination of knowledge.  Commerce is the business world: industry, entrepreneurs, investors.  These very different worlds and cultures have something in common – they are infamous for their reputation for not getting along with each other.

Companies often complain about the bureaucracy they encounter when working with universities and are suspicious of the university’s motives.  It seems crazy how long it takes to do deals, and people in the university either don’t understand or don’t care that their proposed terms and the delays put a strain on getting internal buy-in for the agreement.

On the flip side, universities often complain of companies being exploitive and not understanding the rules, policies and laws they must follow.  University negotiators feel like the company is asking them to do the impossible; they are being pressured to do risky deals that will set a bad precedent, and they begin to dig in their heels in order to protect their organization and its reputation.

The good news is: both sides are wrong about how they view one another’s motives. Winston Churchill once said “America and England are two nations divided by a common language.”  It is precisely the same problem between Academia and Commerce.  It seems like we are communicating, but we are not.  The bad rap that each side gets has everything to do with the communication barriers that occur across the cultural divide and the assumptions people make when communication is less than perfect.

A term that cross-cultural psychologists use for a person who engages with members of another culture for a specific purpose (e.g. business, school, job, etc.) without having the goal of joining that culture is a “sojourner.”  Being a sojourner is tough.  The assumptions and customs that a sojourner carries from their own culture may cause them to come across poorly to members of the host culture.  Frustrations often erupt and a sojourner who isn’t communicating according to the other culture’s expectations can seem stupid, deceitful, or even crazy.

Sound familiar?

Once we understand that we have a cross-cultural communication issue, we can begin to solve the problem by using methods that work across other cultural divides.  Slow down. Check meanings.  Don’t make assumptions.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Write things down and get feedback.  Take turns.  Use the power of nice.

And most importantly, let’s figure out what etiquette we will use for such cross-cultural communications.  As a frequent sojourner, my recommendation is to adopt the etiquette of whoever you are speaking with rather than expecting them to figure out yours.  It’s more work, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like you should have to do it.

If you feel like you are right – because you’re the customer, because you’re smart, or because you are knowledgeable about rules, policies and laws – then you may feel it’s not your job to put in the effort; let the other side do that.  But in the end, the feeling of being right is not nearly as good as the feeling of getting a deal done.

One of the recommendations for contentious negotiations is to lay down some ground rules before trying to make further progress.   But the same advice can keep negotiations from becoming contentious in the first place.  Imagine a set of ground rules that describe etiquette, which you could provide at the very outset either in written form or verbally, that might include such things as:

  1. Objectives: The parties believe that a win-win outcome is the goal of these negotiations, and that the results should ideally support the parties in forming a long-term working relationship.
  2. Contract Drafting: Neither party will commence with drafting a contract, or will request a draft contract, until the parties have achieved a verbal agreement and reduced it to a terms sheet.
  3. Taking Turns: Each party is committed to the principal of taking turns in communicating and recognizes that listening as well as speaking will be necessary to achieve understanding and agreement.
  4. Counter-Proposals: Neither party will request that the other party make a counter-proposal to its own proposal.
  5. Policies: The parties commit to never using the simple existence of policy as a reason for doing a deal in a particular way, but rather, will refer only to the underlying rationale for any such relevant policies during negotiations.
  6. Agreement: Both parties recognize that contractual agreements arise from parties actually agreeing, and that extensive redlining of a draft contract may be used as a basis for returning to verbal negotiations.

This can begin the process of creating a common, deal-making culture between the parties.

Given the pervasive “need for speed,” many may see this as just a way to slow down the negotiation.  But the key thing to recognize is that for any two parties, they only need to do this once.  The time is an investment in bridging the cultural divide.

What do you think – based on your experience, what are the rules of etiquette we would need to establish as we work between Academia and Commerce?

My First Experience with Technology Transfer

In genetics, one of the time-honored ways of studying something is to focus on how it is broken.  Genes are part of systems, links in chains of events that organisms rely on to do what they do.  When you break a link in the chain, it allows you to understand how the organism functions.

In graduate school, I was interested in sugar metabolism in Agrobacterium tumefaciens, so I used a nitrous acid mutagenesis protocol on a strain of the bacterium in order to randomly “break” genes throughout the organism’s genome.  I set to work sifting through the results, looking for mutant strains with altered sugar metabolism.

The strain I was using was known to convert lactose into 3-ketolactose, which has some vitamin-C like properties.  I found a mutant strain that would convert lactose in the growth medium into large quantities of 3-ketolactose – and when I tested the strain with other sugars I saw similar results.  Sucrose became 3-ketosucrose, trehalose became 3-ketotrehalose… any glucoside or galactoside disaccharide I used was converted. Even glucose, a monosaccharide, was converted into 3-ketoglucose, which was a bit surprising.

Since I had seen that 3-ketosugars had been proposed to be used as food preservatives, antioxidants, photographic chemicals, etc. my major professor encouraged me to disclose to our tech transfer office.

I dutifully filled in the disclosure and sent it in, and several weeks later I received a call from the licensing officer.  After giving me a chance to describe the invention and what I thought it would be good for, he asked “So, who would want this?”  I answered, “I have no idea, I’m busy writing my thesis.  I thought that’s what you guys do – figure out who wants these things.”

The outcome of my disclosure to the tech transfer office is not surprising – no commercial opportunity developed from this, and I simply published on my work.  But after I graduated, motivated by lingering curiosity I contacted an inventor listed on one of the patents I had found.  He had retired from the chemical company that had filed the patent, and was kind enough to take my call.  I asked him why the use of 3-ketosugars never took off in the marketplace.  He said, “They work great as food preservatives, but the molecular weight was just not low enough to be competitive.  If the compounds had had half the molecular weight, then the activity per unit would have been high enough and then you would have had something.

Half the molecular weight… 3-ketoglucose was exactly the molecule he was describing.  My mutant agrobacterium strain made lots of 3-ketoglucose, and the normal strain didn’t seem to make any.  It seemed like an opportunity had been missed.

It dawned on me that this loss of opportunity must be happening all the time, for all sorts of reasons.  The chain of events from lab bench to commercial product or service has many links, and it only takes one break in one link to keep things from ever reaching their potential.

It seemed to me that if you could understand how those links might become broken, you would understand a lot about the process of technology transfer.  And you just might be able to focus on making repairs or upgrades in exactly the right places.

A few years later I decided to see for myself what was going on, and I joined a tech transfer office.  Since then I’ve had the opportunity to identify the things that cause the links to break, and I’ve had the opportunity to address many of them.  I’ve also seen colleagues across the world doing the same thing, trying new ideas, and sharing their ideas with one another.

We have come a long way since the Bayh-Dole Act back in 1980, but fundamental challenges remain and we are barely tapping the potential of universities to create the future.  Universities are goldmines of potential innovation, and filled with exceptional people who are looking for ways to get the results of their research “out there.”  This blog is dedicated to helping them succeed, and to helping those who help them – the agents of change in an evolving field – succeed as well.