Research to Renewal: Advancing University Tech Transfer 

Maryann Feldman, Madeleine Gates, Minoli Ratnatunga, Ross DeVol, Dave Shideler

Download Report

The American research university is a unique institution that much of the world has long tried to emulate.Many times under-appreciated in the U.S., research universities are one of the most important knowledge assets of cities and states for economic development purposes. These universities influence the economic prospects of their regions and the nation overall in multiple ways.¹

In this analysis, we evaluate which universities are most proficient at creating new knowledge; embedding it in their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates; and transferring both to new and existing enterprises. Research and discovery are fundamental objectives of universities, but they must be absorbed and infused into private industry to yield an economic return on the investment.

We believe that states, cities and rural areas can more effectively partner with universities in their pursuit of prosperity. Correctly channeled, this approach can create jobs paying top 5% incomes, as well as a wide variety of middle-income jobs, and be inclusive.

This should resonate in heartland states as they attempt to close the gap in economic performance with coastal locations. Greater emphasis is needed
on patenting, licensing and startup activity, and these factors should be weighted more heavily in faculty tenure and promotion decisions. Doing so will assure young researchers that their university passionately supports technology transfer and entrepreneurial activities² and would nudge many in the direction of working collaboratively with businesses.³ Universities with major financial success in startups or royalties from licenses underscore the value of tech transfer and its potential, and contribute additional resources to support the process.

The metrics incorporated in our university benchmarking are among the most comprehensive ever compiled. For formal commercialization and tech transfer of intellectual property, we use invention disclosures, the number of licenses and options, licensing income and startups formed; less formalized modes include citations of university articles contained in patents granted to firms. This demonstrates the value of academic research in the private sector. These metrics are normalized by research expenditures to obtain a measure of efficiency in converting inputs into outputs.

The graduation ceremony at American universities is the biggest single annual technology transfer. While all forms of university education are valuable, our criterion for evaluation incorporates the number of STEM graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and their proportion of total degrees. This yields 14 metrics for the evaluation performed from 2017 to 2019.

We acknowledge the challenges of developing a comprehensive set of performance metrics because a single index cannot capture the nuances and unique circumstances of individual universities. However, a university that does not benchmark its position and measure changes relative to its peers will not be motivated to improve. We provide this assessment in the spirit of improving collective performance across universities simply by incorporating best practices in different functional areas.

Index of University Tech Transfer and Commercialization

It stands to reason that many of the top-performing research universities are among the elite institutions in the U.S.; however, it’s unlikely that many experts would have predicted that Carnegie Mellon University would be first. The relatively small private school has a combination of top-tier computer science and engineering departments, as well as interdisciplinary research programs with a unique entrepreneurial culture and focus. Carnegie Mellon led an economic renaissance in Pittsburgh after steel production and other heavy manufacturing fell on hard times. At second, the University of Florida is the top public university. It has a huge student body (enrollment upwards of 53,000 in 2020) and research enterprise. Its technology transfer prowess was seeded in the 1960s with its creation of Gatorade.

Third through sixth places are occupied by large, elite, private institutions: Columbia, Stanford, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. All have rich research budgets and have placed more emphasis on technology transfer in recent years (except Stanford, which was a pioneer in commercialization) and annually graduate huge amounts of STEM talent.

However North Carolina State, at seventh, demonstrates a public university that believes commercialization is central to its mission can be a top performer. Since joining N.C. State in 2010, Chancellor Randy Woodson has elevated its position by improving STEM programs and elevating support of entrepreneurship and tech transfer. Woodson is an internationally recognized plant molecular biologist who joined N.C. State from Purdue, another strong STEM school and supporter of tech transfer and academic entrepreneurs. Today, North Carolina State anchors the Research Triangle.

The eighth-ranked University of California San Diego was founded as a STEM school and has experienced commercialization success in semiconductor giant Qualcomm and a number of biotechnology firms. Its sibling to the north, the University of California Los Angeles, holds down ninth place. UCLA has long been a research powerhouse, having received the second- greatest funding total by the National Institutes of Health over the past three decades. Chancellor Gene Block brought an emphasis on commercialization and entrepreneurial support of faculty when he came aboard in 2007.

At 10th, the University of Minnesota is the highest- ranked heartland university and stands fifth among public universities. Minnesota has a highly regarded technology commercialization office and several strong STEM academic departments. The university works closely with outside companies and its Minnesota Innovation Partnerships program provides a low-risk option to license technologies through its Try & Buy contracting program. Further, UM has streamlined processes for company-sponsored research.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology shares the 11th spot with Purdue University. MIT has a world- class engineering, technology and science faculty and was the East Coast pioneer in supporting technology commercialization. Purdue is second among heartland universities and excels in startup creation within the biotech and life-science space. Like MIT, its engineering school is top shelf. The private, nonprofit Purdue Research Foundation supports patenting, licensing and entrepreneurship, and is a model that other heartland universities should consider. Here again, leadership matters. When former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels became Purdue president in 2013, he renewed focus on tech transfer and commercialization, and bolstered the institution’s academic stature.

Northwestern University is the heartland’s top private institution at 13th overall. It ranks second in gross licensing income and when normalized for research expenditure. Its Innovation and New Ventures Office started KQ, a new startup accelerator located close to campus that fosters entrepreneurship and successful technology commercialization. Volexion, a battery technology startup based upon research from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is an important tenant. University president and economist Morton Shapiro is a firm believer in Northwestern’s engagement in the marketplace.

Cornell University is 14th, followed by Duke University in 15th. The heartland’s University of Michigan is 16th and boasts an impressive research and commercialization performance, with more than 64,000 students and $1.5 billion in annual research expenditures. Further, Michigan ranks fourth in invention disclosures and fifth in licenses and options issued.

New York University is 17th, followed by the University of Washington at 18th and the California Institute of Technology at 19th. The University of Texas at Austin completes the top 20. UT-Austin is embedded in a leading technology cluster and played a key role in incubating it. Tech transfer is supported by the Texas Innovation Center and is a catalyst for helping faculty and graduate students in STEM fields commercialize their research.

The University of Pittsburgh is 21st, followed by Princeton University at 22nd and Brigham Young University at 23rd. 24th is the University of Chicago, where technology transfer is funneled through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The private school ranks seventh in normalized academic articles that are cited in industry patents. It has a number of innovative collaborations with the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and the Argonne National Laboratory. The University of California Berkeley ranks 25th.

Several heartland universities stand just outside the top 25. The Ohio State University is 32nd and ranks seventh in invention disclosures and in STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded. The University of Houston is 36th

and a remarkable third in licensing income normalized by research expenditures. Its practices are worthy of additional investigation. The University of Wisconsin- Madison is 38th overall, 11th in invention disclosures and 12th in STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded. Case Western Reserve is 39th overall. The heartland is home to many premier research universities, as evidenced in holding 13 of the top 50 positions and 34 of the top 100.

Future Measurement Enhancements and Policy Recommendations

Most of the indicators contained in our benchmark evaluate near- to medium-term effectiveness of technology transfer and talent creation. We would like to include other longer-term metrics, as I outlined previously:

“… post-market metrics of technology transfer and commercialization performance, such as job creation, employee wages, sales and market capitalization of academic-derived enterprises and firms which license IP. If data were more readily available, a comprehensive and longer-term series of impact metrics could be developed.”

For example, MIT found that alumni had started more than 25,000 active firms, including 6,900 that reside in Massachusetts. Collectively, 3.3 million people were employed at these firms and accounted for worldwide revenues of nearly $2 trillion.⁵ ⁶ Stanford alumni created 18,000 California-based firms with annual worldwide sales of $1.27 trillion. The point is that a major research university that sees commercialization, transfer of technology and STEM talent creation as central to its mission can shape the structure of an entire knowledge-based metropolitan economy.

A number of policy recommendations at both the national and state levels support universities in creating middle-class jobs contained in the report summarized here.

  • Renew the promise of innovation-driven economic growth for the entire U.S. through investments of federal funds in scientific and technological innovation.
  • Bolster technology transfer out of regional university research-based centers of excellence.
  • Dedicate funding to university formal technology transfer.
  • Increase technology transfer efficiency by adopting best practices.
  • Pool invention disclosure and patents.
  • Alumni foundation investment in venture capital.
  • The need for more data.

Heartland states should consider several factors to boost performance.⁷ Governors and legislatures may want to consider providing direct funding for technology transfer offices as an economic development initiative. Heartland elected officials should advocate for commercialization and tech transfer to be stated objectives in the mission statements of universities. State leaders should advocate for a consortium of universities to be formed across heartland states to exchange and implement best practices in commercialization. A pooling of invention disclosures and patents across state borders is worthy of investigation. Providing alumni foundation investments into venture capital funds pooled
over multiple states would reduce the risk of these investments and potentially spur greater success.

I encourage you to review and digest the material in this report. It will be well worth the read. Each university can investigate its position by individual metrics and compare itself to others with similar research profiles.

Ross DeVol
President and CEO
Heartland Forward


1) DeVol, R. (2018, September). How Do Research Universities Contribute to Regional Economies: Measuring Research Universities Contributions to Regional Economies. Heartland Forward. wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-do-research-universities-contribute-to- regional-economies-1.pdf

2) DeVol, R. (2018, December 20). Catalyzing Economic Growth in the Heartland Starts with Research Universities. Brookings Institute, The Avenue. economic-growth-in-the-heartland-starts-with-research-universities/

3) Feller, I., Feldman, M., & Bercovitz, J. (2008). The State of Practices of University Technology Transfer Activities. Research Management Review, 12(2), pp.8-16.

4) DeVol, R. (2018, September). How Do Research Universities Contribute
to Regional Economies: Measuring Research Universities Contributions to Regional Economies. Heartland Forward. p.13. wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-do-research-universities-contribute-to- regional-economies-1.pdf

5) Roberts, E. & Eesley, C. (2001). Entrepreneurial Impact : The Role of MIT. Foundations and Trends in Entrepreneurship, 7(1-2), 1-149. https://www. 030

6) Eesley, C. & and Miller, W. (2017, October). Stanford University’s Economic Impact via Innovation and … . SSRNEl Electronic Journal. https://engineeering updatedmarch2013.pdf

7) DeVol, R., Crews, J. & Wisecarver, S. (2018, September). The American Heartland’s Position in the Innovation Economy: Heartland States Lag Behind Coastal States in the Innovation Economy. Heartland Forward. https:// position-in-the-innovation-economy.pdf

Download the report