Agricultural Biotechnology: Economic Development through New Products, Partnerships, and Workforce Development —was the first conference to focus primarily on vehicles for transfer of knowledge generated mainly in the publicly-funded sector to benefits. Knowledge generation by universities, government laboratories and research institutions produces science, technology and intellectual property (IP). Historically, agriculture has used the extension service to deliver benefits from this knowledge to farmers and consumers. During the past 25 years, the need to protect increasingly complex IP (such as biotechnology) has been recognized increasingly as a necessary first step for investment of risk capital to deliver benefits—economic growth, job creation, and value-added products, processes and services—resulting from generation of knowledge. A diversity of vehicles is being used to facilitate transfer, including research parks, partnerships, licensing, SBIRs, CRADAs, and venture-capital investment.
In general, transfer facilitation is moving from a major focus on economic benefits to considering other benefits as well. As experience continues to accrue, it is suggested that commonality will evolve in transfer facilitation.
According to Rick Welsh—based on a recently completed study—industry funding generally brings modestly less basic and more excludable (e.g. patentable) research than does NSF or NIH funding. Industry is wary of the decline in the level of basic research at universities, but contributes to it through its funding relationships. This points to the importance to a number of parties of continuing to publicly fund basic research at universities
Rick Broglie offers concrete examples of bridging “the valley of death”—i.e. transferring science and technology into commercial products. He concentrated on the work that is going on at DuPont Crop Genetics research and Development, where they try to predict trends for agricultural production in the next 5 -10 years. He sees growing demands for biobased fuels and materials, which with other factors, will drive their farmer customers towards more-intensive production systems. They use two complementary paths for product development: the transgenic, gene-discovery approach that has been used for products currently on the market, and, for more complex traits—e.g. balanced amino acids, increased energy availability via increased oil and decreased fiber content—a “new technologies” approach that may or may not involve genetic engineering. New traits have to be commercialized in high-yielding germplasm, and several enabling technologies are employed including molecular genetics; backcrossing can be made more efficient by using molecular markers to select lines with the background of the recurrent parent.
Paul Thompson suggests that technological ethics are today better served in the private sector than in the universities. If so, university-industry partnerships could have the result of improving the capacity for university-based science to address ethical issues, if they bring some of the norms and practices that are commonplace in the private sector into the university. Or they could have the result of transferring the relatively weak ethics performance of university science to the private sector. While we can hope for the better outcome, his suspicion is that university-industry partnerships are likely to produce the latter.
Mark Crowell discusses the function of the association of University technology Managers (AUTM), an international organization with about 3,500 members. Mirroring the global economy, 25% of the membership is outside North America and growing at 2½ times the rate of the US group. The AUTM’s Better World Project is an attempt to show the impact of public-sector research that is not necessarily reflected in terms of licenses, patents and revenue. Twenty-five in-depth stories of university innovation have been collated demonstrating impact regardless of financial implications. A companion piece, Reports from the Field, contains a hundred similar stories in vignette form. These reports are being sent to all members of Congress and to agencies in Washington, DC, to promote understanding of the important roles academic research and technology transfer play in making our world a better place in which to live.
Brenner, Richard; Buckhalt, J. Ronald (NABC, 2006)
Rick Brenner reminds the audience that the USDA helps drive continuous innovation through science and technology by forming Cooperative research and Development agreements (CRADAs) with research institutions and the private sector. The Office of technology transfer in the ARS is key in facilitating these partnerships and in transferring research outcomes for broad beneficial use by the public and agricultural industries of the United States and other nations. Given recent concerns about rising petroleum prices, the United States will be increasing research emphasis on new, environmentally favorable crops for industrial uses representing new economic opportunities for farmers and reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. There is renewed hope that the most prosperous era in American agricultural history is dawning to meet continuing and expanding national needs.
Mike Adang describes his experience in translating research discoveries to a product via a new company that he founded: Insectigen. He discussed ethical conflicts between the role of the entrepreneur—which can be time-consuming—and the role of the professor with obligations to students, to postdocs, to research colleagues, and to others in the university milieu.
Mary Pat Huxley describes development of the workforce in general and of the biotechnology workforce in particular. The United States is not outpacing its competitors with as wide a margin as it did 40 to 50 years ago. Many workers are unable to meet new technical needs in the workplace, and incoming workers often fail to realize that innovation is the driver of the US economy. Such innovation increasingly relies on workers having scientific, mathematical and technical ability, alongside workplace-competency skills.
Bill Goldner describes the USDA’s Small Business Innovation research Program. This competitive funding program, authorized by Congress in 1982, stimulates and facilitates R&D by US-owned and -operated for-profit small businesses (<500 employees). All executive branch departments with extramural research budgets exceeding $100 million are directed by legislation to provide a 2.5% set-aside to fund SBIR.