Harvard Lags in Tech Transfers

Harvard is the world’s leading university in biotech research, but lags far behind MIT in converting its ideas into marketable technology, according to a study released last week.

The study, conducted by the Milken Institute, an economics think tank, ranks Harvard first in terms of the number of biotech papers published and cited—ahead of MIT, which is ranked 21st.

However, MIT is much more successful than Harvard in “technology transfer­”—converting ideas into applicable technology—and does particularly well in creating startup companies, the report found. Harvard ranks 18th in the “technology transfer” category.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy comes from the different focuses of the universities, according to Erik Halvorsen, the director of business development in Harvard’s Office of Technology Development.

While MIT focuses on engineering and the applied sciences, Harvard puts a greater emphasis on the life sciences, which are not as easily transferable into startup companies, Halvorsen said.

The report noted that academics are “conflicted by the greater focus on commercialization, feeling that it might impede research in areas with a lower probability of direct-market applicability but which could nevertheless lead to advances in fundamental scientific knowledge.”

Such conflict has traditionally been the dominant culture at Harvard, according to McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering David A. Edwards.

“Technology transfer had relatively little value relative to other intellectual products of university life and research,” he wrote in an e-mail.

In contrast, students and faculty at MIT are more open to commercial opportunities, said Charles L. Cooney, a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at MIT.

MIT has a “long history and culture of working closely with the commercial world,” he said.

Additionally, MIT emphasizes cross-disciplinary work, which is more likely to produce marketable technology, Cooney said.

“At MIT, many of the academic silos are not nearly as rigid as they are at many universities,” Cooney said.

Halvorsen agreed that historically, cross-disciplinary work has not been as common at Harvard, but said that is rapidly changing.

He cited the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute as examples of cross-disciplinary and inter-institutional cooperation.

The University brought in Office of Technology Development head Isaac T. Kohlberg last year to “work on better translating the academic success that Harvard has had,” Halvorsen said.

The office is now building the framework to invest in the technologies itself, in order to “take those early stage technologies and move them a little further along to a stage where there is commercial interest,” Halvorsen said.

The report notes that the survey data did not account for the fact that not all startups grow into successful large companies.

Halvorsen emphasized that the Office of Technology Development is concerned with the long-term possibilities for success of each of its ventures.

“We won’t just do a license to do a license,” he said. “We have to put it in the hands of someone we are very sure can take it to the next level.”

—Staff writer Stephanie S. Garlow can be reached at sgarlow@fas.harvard.edu.