Guiding STEM Researchers through the Valorisation Journey: The Technology Transfer Office at Istanbul Technical University

The road to Istanbul Technical University by Ilkay Unal

The support organizations such as incubation centers, science parks, technology transfer offices, governmental bodies, and industrial associations have critical importance as the major enablers of STEM valorisation. Among them, technology transfer offices (TTO) have a special place in the entrepreneurship ecosystem of R&D, innovation and technological transformation in Turkey. Our field study revealed that the university-industry cooperation in Turkey has difficulties mainly due to different priorities of both parties. The establishment of TTOs has built the pathway for many academic research results to be commercialized efficiently. However, there are still gaps in the path towards valorisation in order to expand the research impact to broader society.  İTÜNOVA TTO, one of Turkey’s leading technology transfer offices, has reached a total budget of 360 million Turkish Liras with 1088 university-industry collaboration projects since its establishment in 2014. With its 328 patent applications, it makes a significant contribution to the R&D ecosystem of Turkey.

Established as an independent company (İTÜNOVA), TTO of Istanbul Technical University (ITU) is positioned between the academia and business world with the aim of providing necessary and needed connections within the relevant industries. The name of ITU (est.in 1773), one of the oldest technical universities in the world, has become identical with STEM education through the years. Being the architect of countless scientific and technological advances, ITU has succeeded many firsts in the country. Still, the extant academic research conducted in more than 400 laboratories and 17 research centers as well as academic publications should serve to turn the great potential of ITU into more substantial outcomes generating greater impact for society. This is the major aim of the TTO, as stated by the expert interviewed in the field.  The technology transfer office aims to fill the gap between research in STEM and their reflections to the industry and society by bringing STEM researchers together with industrialists and investors.

Academics and business people are considered as the main actors in the process of valorisation. Although the companies have considerable interest and determination to contact with the university, the academicians are observed as more reluctant to connect their work to the industry, some are not even aware of the work that TTO performs. Since ITU has a large number of academicians (2.241 as of May’22), TTO management has decided to reach out to specific faculty conducting research in fields having potential contribution to the industry. Besides, the office coordinates dissemination of EU based reports to the faculty members in order to form an idea of what is expected from researchers in the broader environment. The ongoing seminars and trainings on entrepreneurship and university-industry collaboration are among the major activities that they use to attract the attention of the academics in terms of how they may follow different paths to valorise their research.

A TTO expert points out the importance of clarity in their communications with the researchers by stating them how their projects or innovations can improve lives and provide real-world solutions. They organize themselves “to guide the university and the industry according to emerging needs and trends through working on patent procurement, intellectual property rights, licensing, incentives for the establishment of academic-based new companies (spin offs), market research, finding capital and project funding” as stated by the TTO expert. Therefore, TTO defines itself as responsible of providing information, coordinating programs for research communities, directing research to relevant areas, encouraging the establishment of new R&D companies, developing cooperation with the industry, protecting and marketing intellectual property rights, as well as managing revenues resulting from the sales.

Success Examples in Valorisation of STEM Research

The technology transfer office members proudly assert that they recently assisted to the valorisation of two important projects; the first about natural language processing, and the latter production of food preservatives from eggshells. Natural Language Processing Software Chain have made communication possible between machines and humans natural and efficient. It is also known as the first licensing success from Turkey to the US through İTU TTO. Developing machines capable of natural language processing is a critical technology that is still evolving in the world today. Turkish, which belongs to a different language family than many other languages, is among the most difficult for machines to learn. When the limited capabilities of the previous versions in the field are considered, this project’s impact has a critical value.

“At a time when Turkey was dependent on foreign food chemicals, we succeeded in exporting a product developed domestically to the far east and Singapore. We acted as a bridge between both the company requesting the product and the product developer by enabling correct communication.”

This is how a dream has turned into a real product, feasible for the market and meaningful for the environment. Producing food preservatives from natural sources of calcium has impact on many industries such as foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and packaged products regarding prolonging the shelf life of products without side effects, based on its natural content.

It is reported that İTÜNOVA TTO is committed to become an important stakeholder not only in the local but also in the international R&D ecosystem and will continue to support valorisation of STEM research with its qualified staff.

Authored by Sebnem Burnaz, Professor and Director at İTU GINOVA