Michael Waring came to the University of Michigan (U-M) in 1970 as a student. He left 4 years later with his degree in journalism and later returned to serve as Executive Director of Federal Relations for U-M beginning in 2000. Mike has also served as Chair of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) Advocacy and Alliances Portfolio. We recently sat down with Mike to learn more about his years Directing Federal Relations for U-M and interactions with the technology transfer technology transfer profession over the years.
According to Mike, when he first rejoined the University, Congress was interested in overhauling or adjusting parts of the patent system (which later became the America Invents Act (AIA)). He noted the importance of ensuring that university’s concerns were heard and taken into account as the AIA was drafted. According to Mr. Waring, a strong patent system is essential to university technology transfer because they contain “the value that an idea has that we can then transfer and license to a 3rd party to try to develop into a business or product or technology or drug.”
Mr. Waring emphasized that a key question in his work was related to the impact of research funding on innovation: “What are the things we’re doing [in Washington] and what are the benefits to the people that live there from the work we do in Ann Arbor?” He noted that “the first wave of innovation always happens where the discovery was made.” For example, a discovery at U-M in Ann Arbor could lead to a startup company being formed in Ann Arbor, which would help build and develop the local economy; in this way, public universities like U-M are very important for local economic development. This also shows lawmakers why they should support research funding at, for example, the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense – these research investments have far-reaching positive consequences for the local, state, and national economies.
Impact is very important for technology transfer offices as well. Mr. Waring noted that the things that we typically count are indeed important – things like the numbers of patents awarded and startups formed in a given year. However, he stated that technology transfer offices should also tell their stories – how their work is making lives better in their communities, cities, and states – and make it easy for lawmakers and others to share those stories. Stories make impact real and less abstract and make it easier for funders to say “yes” to funding requests. Mr. Waring’s advice? “We all need to be laser-focused on understanding the positive impact that these discoveries have on the taxpayer that has paid for that research…[e.g.,] how many companies have we created, how many jobs have we created with those companies, how have we made the world a better place with the discoveries we made at the university.”
Mr. Waring focused on the possibilities of better communicating the impact of technology transfer work through big data. For example, there are now databases that track the outcomes of specific research projects, including the companies that were created from those projects and the salaries of the employees of those companies. Such data will allow us, as more universities sign on to such federal databases, to better understand how research funding flows outward and becomes new technologies, new companies, and new jobs for our society. As Mr. Waring put it, “the more [data] that we have, the more stories we can tell.”
During his time in Washington, Mr. Waring interacted frequently with the U-M Office of Technology Transfer (OTT): “We’re really fortunate to have such an amazing team of IP experts in OTT. When these bills were introduced, I would send them to someone like Rick Brandon, Associate General Counsel,… and he would quickly be able to review and provide feedback from the university’s perspective. Rick has testified before Congress a number of times and is recognized as a leading expert in the field. Bryce Pilz, Director of Licensing, has also participated in roundtables at the capital to discuss how courts have interpreted what’s eligible to be patented.” Over the course of Mr. Waring’s 20-year career with U-M, he saw technology transfer offices change from compartmentalized entities that kept to themselves into offices that worked with the broader corporate community. For example, OTT frequently works with the U-M Business Engagement Center to look for partners to help further develop discoveries and nurture relationships with local businesses. This close collaboration helps both offices to better provide resources, connections, and counsel to U-M inventors and entrepreneurs as well as the local Ann Arbor business community.
Regarding the future of intellectual property in Washington, Mr. Waring stated that one particularly pressing issue is certainty. Can a patent be protected without spending lots of money and resources on protecting that patent? Certainty affects whether a company would be willing to license patents from universities and whether investors (like angel investors and venture capitalists) might invest in startups and other early-stage companies that depend on the protection provided by their patents. Due to a number of recent court cases and legislation, certainty is harder to get in the United States and may make technology transfer much more difficult in the future, which isn’t without consequence. We saw one year where the U.S. fell from number 1 or 2 in the world on patent certainty to number 12… if people think they can get a better deal by patenting their inventions in Germany or Japan or China, that’s where they are going to invest. We can’t afford to have that money invested overseas, we need to have that invested here in the U.S., creating jobs here.” Mr. Waring hopes that by improving certainty for patents, more discoveries can be transferred out of universities more readily and startups can attract much-needed funding.
Mr. Waring retired in December 2020. While OTT and U-M will miss Mr. Waring and this close partnership, we welcome Kristina Ko, Assistant VP, Federal Relations for Research, who was named the Director of the Washington Office as of January 1st, 2021. Under her leadership, the D.C. office will represent the interests of both the offices of Government Relations and Research and will play a key role in supporting the university’s mission to serve the nation and bolster faculty participation in public engagement.