Working with Technology Transfer Offices to support open hardware in academia

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By Julieta Arancio, associate researcher at CENIT-UNSAM

Since the early publication of Open Source Lab back in 2013, open hardware for science (see box 1) has witnessed an accelerated growth worldwide. Open Science Hardware (OSH) practitioners in academia contribute significantly to this phenomenon, publishing peer-reviewed designs, supporting specialized publication venues, training fellow researchers, and sharing knowledge in new communities of practice.

Since 2016, the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH) community works to connect and support researchers developing and using open hardware for science. Across multiple community discussions in a diversity of institutional settings, the GOSH community identified that one of the keys to support open hardware practice in academia is getting OSH practitioners and Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) to work together.

To accelerate this process, on 8 March and 14 April 2021, GOSH organized an online workshop to explore how TTOs and OSH practitioners can collaborate. Gathering 15 participants from both backgrounds, the discussion aimed to identify the critical challenges and opportunities of this process. We present here the core ideas discussed during this session, which will become part of a policy brief aimed at TTOs in academic institutions around the world.

Box 1
Open hardware (open source hardware or OSH) is one model of technology transfer whereby hardware designs are shared openly online for anyone to freely use, modify and commercialize. 

From the Open Source Hardware definition:
“The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it […] Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs”.

Physical tools for science include sensors that monitor the environment, desktop 3D printers and microprocessors enabling customized equipment in university and industry labs, small satellites developed by students, amongst many others worldwide.

Challenges: improving communication

A significant challenge identified by participants relates to delivering the message about OSH  to TTOs. The OSH community needs better communication strategies that speak to TTOs’ needs, in a language that brings the value of OSH closer to this audience. Although TTOs are familiar with open source software, in general, they are not aware of OSH. There is a need for further work and clarification on how OSH can fit within TTO’s current practices, regulations, and overall infrastructure, and the perception of associated risks such as liability or image concerns. 

In order to convey the value of OSH and address the concerns of TTOs, the GOSH community needs to work on identifying use cases. Successful stories of open hardware projects can illustrate the benefits and working mechanisms clearly, such as the well-known Arduino microprocessor board which grew from a student project to a multi-million pound business. Because TTOs will likely differ in their knowledge about OSH, the GOSH community should also try to understand if there’s a need to raise awareness, engage or reach understanding with each TTO. Researchers are often the best placed to do this, having first-hand information and experience of their own institutions’ needs.

Connecting to TTOs’ associations such as the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) was raised as a possible strategy for outreach. For example, publishing a piece in a newsletter or presenting at TTO’s meetings is a powerful way to connect with them. In the past, this outlet has been used to raise interest in an open material transfer agreement for biological materials. 

Strategic synergies

One of the main themes that emerged from the discussion is the opportunity that OSH brings to TTOs, specifically for supporting industry collaboration, fostering new revenue-generating enterprises, increasing the visibility of institutions and maximising the impact of their existing academic outputs. However, it was also acknowledged that current priorities for TTOs, mostly aligned with the intellectual property (IP) model, pose a significant challenge for delivering the message. Some examples include the incentive schemes that are today in place for TTOs, reflected in the use of Key Performance Indicators such as “number of patents”, or the acquired experience and deeply rooted legal infrastructure, including the use of specific standards, established workflows, and officers’ training based on IP.  

Accounting for a spectrum of technology transfer possibilities would allow universities to unchain the full potential of academic work. The collaborative nature of OSH practice accelerates innovation; one of the ways it does so is by opening up the possibility of new multi-scale partnerships with stakeholders in industry, civil society, and government. The COVID-19 crisis sparked a diversity of projects that illustrate the nature of collaboration in open hardware. Initiatives like Make4Covid delivered 120,000 units of PPE in 6 months to vulnerable populations in the US, collaborating with the University of Colorado Denver, while coordinating the work of over 2,000 volunteers. Particularly in times of crisis and complex challenges, OSH can help TTOs by nurturing the universities’ missions to serve society in a more efficient way.

There are also missed opportunities for TTOs in leveraging technology and research that currently do not fit in the de facto patent-and-license scheme. One example can be found in inventions with niche markets where a patent may be unprofitable but a manufacturing business could thrive; a usual situation for science hardware such as Open ePhys. Another example is found in technologies which are perceived as more valuable to end-users when they can be customised and repaired, such as the paradigmatic RepRap 3D printers. Platform technologies acting as convergence points for pre-competitive and competitive industry activity, such as lowRISC for open source silicon designs, constitute another case that falls out of the dominant TTO scheme.

By providing support for researchers to openly license their work, TTOs open new opportunities for creating enterprises and impact. However, there is a challenge in monitoring this stream of technology, as OSH does not require a license agreement to be executed by every end user. 

Incorporating OSH as an option for technology transfer could also bring concrete benefits for academic institutions that want to attract and retain the best hardware engineering talent. Precedents exist in the open source software community, where IBM invested heavily for reasons including contact with the most cutting edge programmers, typically those working in open source projects. 

Providing recognition for and opening dialogue with researchers and developers producing OSH in academia could increase their sense of fulfillment and motivation at the workplace, making it easier to retain talent. But it also serves as a beacon for OSH developers worldwide: a growing and highly specialised demographic that can then easily identify institutions that would support them in a more efficient way.

Concrete recommendations

Considering the strategic opportunities that OSH presents to TTOs’ mission, participants identified concrete ways in which TTOs’ and the GOSH and broader OSH community can support efforts to grow OSH in academia and its transition to being used in companies. 

1. Increasing TTO understanding about OSH and OSH licensing

Through workshops and dedicated training sessions, TTOs can become a pillar for supporting open hardware researchers and developers while generating revenue and increasing the impact of academic outputs. We recommend that TTO staff understand the conditions under which open licenses are more appropriate than proprietary schemes and vice versa; clarifying attribution and commercial use when using open licenses; and read  successful (and not so successful) open hardware stories to understand how OSH has been adopted in companies from large multinationals to startups. 

Specific activities that could support this include:

  • Promoting collaborations between TTOs and the open hardware community: the open hardware community and TTOs can work together to produce tailored communication materials that facilitate the adoption of open licenses in the academic context. 
  • Setting up a network of open hardware-friendly TTOs for sharing knowledge and increasing visibility: Connecting open hardware-friendly TTOs will allow the offices to pool resources and find solutions to common challenges faster. Besides gaining visibility, TTOs in this network would have the advantage of contributing early to shape the emerging ecosystem and agenda of open hardware in academia.

2. Fostering a dialogue between open hardware practitioners through identifying and promoting open hardware champions in academia

We recommend that TTOs interested in exploring OSH seek out researchers developing OSH within their institution to find out more about their projects and goals. Acting as translators between TTOs’ and the open hardware community, these OSH champions can also advance other benefits to institutions of adopting OSH, such as helping attract and retain hardware engineering and research talent. 

Specific activities that could support this include:

  • Fostering research and teaching on the topic of open science in general and open-source hardware in particular among faculties in order to further develop knowledge on business models based in OSH,
  • Integrating innovation support and signposting to relevant TTO staff within university technological innovation infrastructure such as FabLabs, makerspaces, hackerspaces, which often are venues for open hardware development.

3. Aligning policies for open hardware as a means to advance the university’s mission and impact, including via technology transfer activities

The current priorities, metrics, and key performance indicators against which TTOs are measured are typically based on the IP model. These metrics are not incompatible with open licensing of hardware and subsequent commercialisation, but they are not all well aligned. This can make it more challenging for TTO staff to advocate internally for exploring and ultimately adopting OSH. 

Specific activities that could support this include:

  • Producing a toolbox of metrics to track open hardware developments,
  • Producing a policy briefing and advocacy toolkit for university leadership on the value of open hardware from a diversity of perspectives,
  • Reviewing and generating data on the impact and revenue generated across a representative sample of proprietary and open source innovations from public institutions, turning OSH into a subject of research for TTOs in itself. TTOs are ideally positioned to conduct this research and to put in place demonstrators for the different venues they would like to explore.

Moving forward

Further recommendations are being compiled based on the workshop conversations which aim to improve the situation of OSH researchers and developers. The overall goal is to promote a complementary open paradigm for technology transfer that adds to the TTO toolbox, increases the impact, and ultimately the benefits of academic research and innovation for society.

These ideas, together with illustrative examples of OSH projects, will be incorporated into a policy brief that the GOSH community will disseminate among TTOs at universities and research institutions worldwide. We will be sharing a link to the brief once it is published; we do appreciate wide dissemination within your networks.

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