What happens at the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO)?

Utrecht Holdings brings scientific research to market and to society

At a very early stage of a research project, we try to assess what it could mean for society. Speaking is Tessa Scharringhausen, Director of Knowledge Transfer at Utrecht Holdings since September 2020. Together with her team, she brings societal relevant research from Utrecht University and the UMC Utrecht to the market.

About this series

As an open university, we want to make our knowledge available to society and offer solutions, says Anton Pijpers, president of the Executive Board. Contributing to society can be done in many ways, bringing our research to market being one of them. We encourage our students and colleagues to be entrepreneurial: don't wait around for someone else to take action.

In this interview series, the Centre for Entrepreneurship introduces you to the people who can help take your idea further, or make that possible.

A commercial take on knowledge

Tessa Scharringhausen, directeur Knowledge Transfer bij Utrecht Holdings
Tessa Scharringhausen

What happens at Utrecht Holdings?

Utrecht Holdings is the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) of Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht. We want the institutions to be able to make an impact with everything that is discovered and invented. There are many ways of doing that, such as publications or public-private partnerships.

At Utrecht Holdings, we look at things from a commercial perspective: bringing the intellectual property developed at both institutions to the market, in the best way possible. With our team of sixteen colleagues, we facilitate the path from invention to market. We take care of commercial tech transfer.

What do you mean by tech?

Knowledge, value. Tech transfer is jargon, in Dutch we say 'kennisoverdracht'.

Is it always about technology?

It is about all the IP, the intellectual property. Patents or no patents, copyrights... there are different forms that can each be protected in different ways. If patent protection is necessary or important, we take care of it. As Utrecht Holdings, we have the mandate from both institutions to do so.

There is an increasing expectation that universities will conduct research that benefits society as a whole.

Who 'owns' an idea?

All results from education and research developed by salaried employees are the property of the university. To prevent state support, a fair market price must be paid by a spin-off or commercial party that will take the invention further in the private sector. This market price is laid down in a so-called licence agreement.

Sometimes this practice can create some tension. Suppose research becomes a spin-off. Then the entrepreneur is often also the researcher. Suddenly, the tables have turned and you have to deal with the conditions under which you can do business with your invention. Sometimes it happens that someone does not like the conditions. That is possible and permissible, and we can talk about that.

When is scientific research commercially interesting?

We try to assess the innovation at a very early stage of the research. We make an estimate of what it could mean in practice, a value proposition, and what it will take to achieve that practice. That is complicated. The invention still needs so much development. A lot can go wrong, things can suddenly go much better. Sometimes the application changes along the way, meaning you might have a completely different customer group. It is almost impossible to predict. And then we also aim to put a good price on it.

Fortunately, we have many experienced employees who understand how scientists work. That experience, together with the available data, insights from customer interviews and all the market and feasibility analyses we conduct, determines whether we take the next step on the road to the market.

A researcher does not have to become an entrepreneur. It is really about the thought 'maybe my research is interesting for society'.

At Utrecht Holdings, our ambition is to become one of the best KTOs in the world. To achieve this, we want to seize more high potential opportunities.

‘High potential' is basically a marketable value proposition that has a certain degree of measurable impact. We sell special intellectual property in the field of algorithms, sustainability, life sciences, pharmaceuticals and medical technology. There is usually a large group of patients involved, which helps to define a clear impact.

How does collaboration with researchers come about?

It starts with a research result: it works or has demonstrable potential. That could be the start of a patent application or a discussion with a commercial party. The researcher can become the commercial party him or herself and start a start-up, or we can talk to an existing market party.

Sometimes it is still too early for that and more research is needed. That is not a problem, it has its advantages. After a market analysis, we can give a more demand-driven research assignment, so that further development can be more closely aligned with the intended market application. That way, real impact can be made. Otherwise, it sometimes remains too fundamental.

Researchers can also come to us for advice on IP agreements in the case of a collaboration or large consortium request. Research can result in IP or joint IP that can lead to a commercial deal. Ideally, agreements about this should be made in advance.

A researcher does not have to become an entrepreneur. It is really about the thought 'maybe my research is interesting for society'. And then I hope the next thought is: 'Let’s go see if Utrecht Holdings can help to achieve that.’

To market with your research?

Researchers who think they have a patentable or commercially interesting invention can fill out Utrecht Holdings' Invention Disclosure Form, in consultation with their Research Support Office. More information on academic entrepreneurship for UU employees can be found in the guide From Researcher to Academic Entrepreneur. Employees of UMC Utrecht can visit the intranet for more information.

Invention Disclosure Form
UU-guide 'From Researcher to Academic Entrepreneur'
Academic entrepreneurship at UMC Utrecht (intranet)