One of AUTM’s primary missions is to ensure that the development of great ideas takes place in a regulatory and professional arena that is predictable, fair and safeguarded by stable norms and practices. To nurture this level playing field, AUTM leadership tracks and communicates its views on proposed legislation and rules changes that might hamper the essential work of AUTM members.
AUTM’s domestic political outreach enjoys the leadership of two seasoned veterans of technology transfer and policy advocacy—David Winwood, AUTM’s president-elect and its vice president for Advocacy, as well as chief business development officer for Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center; and Michael Waring, the University of Michigan’s director of its Washington, D.C. office and executive director of federal relations for the university.
Waring notes that “the work that AUTM is doing focuses on supporting federal relations officers from university campuses, and by being a resource to the higher education associations, such as AAU, APLU and COGR, which are part of our coalition in Washington on issues which affect the technology transfer profession.”
Even-handed and evidence-based
AUTM’s ability to forge and nurture partnerships with such associations is a great strength, as is its reliance upon verifiable fact and clear reasoning to educate policymakers. In Washington, AUTM has a reputation for even-handedness and evidence-based policy advocacy and works hard to establish relationships based on trust, good will and education.
As Waring points out, “Educating lawmakers and their staff about the tech transfer process is key. Before we can make arguments for or against particular legislation, we need them to understand how technology transfer really works. Only after they hear from practitioners about the many nuances and complexities of technology transfer can they understand the full implication of proposed legislation.”
The most prominent issue of late has been the myriad proposals to revamp the United States patent landscape. Some members of Congress, reacting to so-called “patent troll” lawsuits, have proposed the Innovation Act to put a stop to these frivolous legal actions through mandatory fee-shifting (that is, “loser pays”). In brief, fee-shifting would radically change patent litigation by forcing the losing party to assume all legal fees, not just their own. AUTM leadership, working on behalf of its members, contends that the Innovation Act would seriously hinder technology innovation by exposing legitimate patent-holders to monetary damages incurred in legitimately defending their intellectual property. It would also make it more difficult for smaller firms, including university startup companies, to defend their patents against infringers.
Poorly defined terms
Part of the problem lies in determining exactly what constitutes a “troll” or a frivolous tort. Some experts contend that these terms are so poorly defined as to be nearly meaningless. But the patent troll concept has taken root in the mainstream media, leading some lawmakers to create legislation to correct a problem that has not been properly defined. As such, the remedy may be more damaging than the problem.
In an appearance before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on March 19, 2015, Winwood testified about the importance of patents to the contribution made by universities to the innovation economy, asserting that “[t]his is about safeguarding access to our patent system for universities, small businesses, small investors and for the working men and women who create new companies—and sometimes whole new industries—from sheer ingenuity.”
AUTM’s collaborative strategy
A key component to AUTM’s strategy lies in working in close alliance with a broad range of education and industry organizations, including the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the Council on Government Relations (COGR), the Innovation Alliance (IA), the Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA), the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) and the Alliance of U.S. Startups and Inventors for Jobs (USIJ). Bringing the practitioners’ perspective to the conversation has been immensely helpful for all involved.
This broad coalition has been effective in communicating concerns about the Innovation Act, and those concerns are bipartisan. For example, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in April published the following statement regarding the Act:
“The Innovation Act (H.R. 9) goes well beyond what is needed to address bad actions of a small number of patent holders, and instead raises costs for all legitimate patent holders to enforce their Constitutionally-given property rights in court. […] Any legislative action should be limited and focused on specific abusive behavior, not the overly broad approach on procedural aspects of enforcing patents as H.R. 9 does.”
On the GOP side of the aisle, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has been a strong voice against H.R. 9, most recently via an op-ed in The Washington Times in which he states that “Just because a measure holds itself up as ‘tort reform’ should not mean it escapes the scrutiny of free-market Republicans. It should instead call for a skeptical second look, and then more throughout its progress. Guaranteed: Such close-eyed analyses of this bill will encourage deep suspicion.”
Legislation has also been introduced in the Senate seeking to address similar issues. As is the case in the House, the two bills under consideration—the PATENT Act (S. 1137) and the STRONG Patents Act (S. 632)—have attracted bipartisan sponsorship.
Research funding breakthrough on the horizon?
AUTM has also been an active advocate for increased research funding on the federal level. And again, there is evidence of support from unexpected sources. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently published a strong call for doubling the National Institutes of Health budget to spur the innovation that will prepare us for the next health crisis and maintain the country’s lead in life sciences. It appears that when it comes to innovations in healthcare—just as with the bipartisan alliances emerging to maintain a strong patent system—some issues are just too important to serve as a political football.
AUTM’s policy oversight and advocacy efforts do not stop at national boundaries. With increasing economic globalization comes concern over how to protect intellectual property rights around the world. AUTM has begun coordinating efforts to enhance advocacy on a global basis to support the technology transfer profession.
The expanded focus on international commerce raises yet another challenge. It is a challenge that AUTM, alongside its partners in co-founding the globally focused Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals (ATTP), has embraced in the campaign to professionalize the technology transfer field through setting professional standards and credentialing criteria. In 2010, AUTM joined with the Association of Science and Technology Professionals (known as ASTP-Proton), PraxisUnico, the Association of Technology Managers in Taiwan (ATMT), and Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) to found ATTP, with the aim of establishing a set of global standards that define technology transfer as a credentialed profession. Once again, AUTM’s collaborative approach is a key strategic component.