Finnish university technology transfer is currently caught in the turbulences of major changes in the national innovation system. Three virtually simultaneous changes are of special importance. The first is the massive on-going renewal of the Universities Act governing the Finnish higher education system in its entirety. It was originally initiated to provide universities with more financial and operational flexibility and autonomy and, thus, with better premises to fulfil the three mandates (i) to educate, (ii) to conduct academic research, and (iii) to impact societal welfare. The second change is the foundation of the so-called Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation (Finnish acronym : SHOK) that aim at establishing and re-enforcing long-term research cooperation between the academia and the Industry. The final change is the enactment of the new University Inventions Act in early January 2007. The Act provided universities with the rights of ownership to inventions made in sponsored research that, according to the principle of the professors privilege, were considered property of the respective academic inventors prior to the change.
In the beginning of 2008 Etlatieto Ltd. interviewed 11 of 20 research universities active in Finland to capture the potential impacts the three changes might have on university technology transfer activities. The set of interviewees comprised professionals conducting different tasks in the technology transfer units of universities ranging from research directors to technology transfer officers to lawyers.
According to the results, the expected benefits of the renewal of the Universities Act mainly comprise of the increasing financial flexibility of universities hoped to translate into a proliferation of tools available for the transfer of university technology (support of start-ups, investments etc.), and a general increase in the profile of technology transfer functions that should alleviate their current deficiency in resources. Challenges regarding the Universities Act, on the other hand, relate to the lack of administrative and business related expertise in universities required to fulfil the up-coming tasks mandated by the Act, and the lack of commitment on part of universities management resulting in insufficient resources.
SHOKs, in turn, are expected to enable longer project cycles, to reduce administrative burden, to encourage the setting of scientifically more ambitious research objectives, as well as to increase research collaboration and its efficiency. Challenges were identified to relate to proposed IPR-practices potentially endangering the academic freedom of university research, the incentive schemes of top researchers to participate in SHOK projects, the inefficiencies of a large participant base, and the dangers of a strongly industry driven mode of co-operation to academic values.
Finally, the benefits of the University Inventions Act are expected to emerge from the gradual dismantling of the ivory tower of academe, an increase in the amount of received invention disclosures, and more efficient administrative practices in university technology transfer functions. Perceived challenges, in turn, include interpretational difficulties of the Act, the modest commitment of university management to university technology transfer in general, increasing administrative burdens, and strong cultural differences between researchers, industry and university administration.