The Role of Technology Transfer Offices in Innovation and the Challenges They Face

by Odelle Technology

In recent years, the role of Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) has come under scrutiny, with critics arguing that they often act as barriers rather than facilitators of innovation. This blog delves into the critical issues surrounding TTOs, particularly in the UK and broader European landscape context, drawing on recent empirical studies and expert opinions.

The Role of TTOs

TTOs are designed to bridge the gap between academic research and commercial application. Their primary role is to manage intellectual property (IP) generated within universities and facilitate its commercialisation. This process involves protecting IP through patents, licensing technologies to existing companies, or creating new spinout companies.

However, despite their intended purpose, TTOs have often been criticised for their bureaucratic processes and their tendency to prioritise university interests over those of researchers and entrepreneurs. This criticism is not unfounded, as highlighted by Matt Wichrowski, who argues that TTOs often kill potential deep-tech companies through greed and incompetence, acting more as rent-seekers rather than facilitators of innovation.

Challenges and Criticisms

1. Equity and Motivation: One of the significant criticisms against TTOs is the high equity stakes they demand from spinouts. According to a survey by Air Street Capital, UK universities take an average of 19.8% equity in spinouts, compared to just 5.9% in the US. This high equity demand can demotivate founders and deter potential investors, as it leaves founders with little stake after several funding rounds, thereby reducing their motivation to continue with the startup.

2. Bureaucratic Delays: The process of creating a spinout can be lengthy and bureaucratic. The same survey indicated that 67% of spinouts took more than six months to finalize deals, which is longer than typical startup investments. Such delays can be detrimental to the momentum and success of new ventures.

3. Control Over Governance: UK universities also tend to exercise significant control over the management of spinouts, often installing members of their TTOs in the management boards. This practice can lead to conflicts of interest and may not always bring the best managerial expertise to the table.

4. Low Satisfaction Rates: Founders’ satisfaction with the TTO process is low. In the same Air Street Capital survey, the average satisfaction score was 4.6 out of 10, with 14% of founders rating their experience as zero.

Potential Reforms

Given these challenges, several experts have suggested reforms to make TTOs more effective:

 Reducing Equity Stakes: There is a strong argument for capping university ownership at lower percentages. Some advocate for stakes as low as 1-5% to ensure that founders remain motivated and attractive to investors.

Streamlining Processes: Simplifying and speeding up the process of creating spinouts is crucial. This could involve reducing the bureaucratic hurdles and making the TTOs’ operations more transparent and founder-friendly.

 Focusing on Facilitation: Instead of acting as gatekeepers, TTOs could take on a more facilitative role, helping researchers connect with investors and industry partners without overly stringent demands on equity and control.

Success Stories and Best Practices

Despite the criticisms, there are examples of best practices within the TTO landscape. Universities like Cambridge and Imperial College have introduced more flexible and founder-friendly models. For instance, Imperial’s “Founders Choice” program allows academic entrepreneurs to retain more control and equity in their startups.

Additionally, initiatives like the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) have shown the potential of international collaboration in technology transfer. EEN’s model involves detailed partnership agreements and support structures that facilitate smoother and more effective technology transfers across borders.


The effectiveness of TTOs is crucial for the commercialization of academic research and the overall innovation ecosystem. While they play an essential role in managing and protecting IP, there is a clear need for reform to ensure they do not become obstacles to innovation. By adopting more flexible, transparent, and founder-friendly approaches, TTOs can better fulfil their mandate and significantly contribute to economic growth and technological advancement.


– Sifted. “Should the UK get rid of tech transfer offices?” [Sifted. eu](

– Air Street Capital. “UCL and Oxford are Europe’s ‘worst universities for spinouts.'” [](

– Ferraro, G., & Iovanella, A. “Technology Transfer in Innovation Networks: An Empirical Study of the Enterprise Europe Network.” International Journal of Engineering Business Management.

– Araújo, C., & Teixeira, A. “Determinants of International Technology Transfer: An Empirical Analysis of the Enterprise Europe Network.” Journal of Technology Management & Innovation.

– Lehmann, E. E., & Meoli, M. “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Regional Development: Evidence from European regions.” Journal of Technology Transfer.

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