Waterloo — couldn’t escape if I wanted to

I visited the University of Waterloo last week to keynote a small conference at their Accelerator Centre, which is their technology incubator. The topic of the conference: “open or closed, which should you choose with your new project?” I posed my keynote as a set of questions that every software innovator should ask themselves when making this decision — and, of course, the questions I chose were quite leading. 🙂

Sometimes I’ve got the mojo and sometimes I don’t, and for this speech, on this day, I felt like I had the mojo. It was a good day. It was a great crowd, very engaged. Mad props to Chris Tyler of Seneca for attending with me, and ferrying me to and from YYZ, and all of the great discussions that we had on those long rides. (And also for the roasted chicken at Swiss Chalet. Yum.)

But the *real* reason I wanted to attend was because one of the hosts of the event was C4, a technology transfer organization counting ten Canadian members, university and industry, from Southwest Ontario. When pushing the open source agenda at the university level, one of the many hurdles we hit repeatedly (and particularly in the US) is the intransigence of TT folks, and their inability to appreciate, or even understand, the value of open source software. After the conference concluded, I had the opportunity to sit down at lunch with a roomful of open source friendly TT professionals, to pick their brains about why, exactly, it’s so hard for TT folks to “get” open source, and what we can do to help change their minds.

Following are some of the key insights I gleaned about the business of TT from this discussion — and if I’ve misunderstood, please feel free to comment, since I’m still new to all this.

* TT orgs differ by mission largely by how the university itself treats IP. In universities where IP is institutionally-owned — which describes the vast majority of large American universities — the mission of TT orgs tends strongly to be generating revenue for the institution. In orgs in which the IP is researcher-owned, which describes a significant percentage of Canadian universities, near as I can tell, and a handful of US schools — the goal of the TT office is much more a facilitator to help the researcher get that technology out into the world, in whatever way the researcher sees fit.

* Most TT folks aren’t generally good at software; it’s not their sweet spot. They are more accustomed to dealing with technology from industries that involve the creation of physical goods. Therefore, their first question is *always* “what defensible IP have you created?” It’s not just that TT orgs are uncomfortable with open source software; frequently, they are uncomfortable with *any* software.

* In those cases where TT is seen as a money-maker, the role of the TT office is very much like the role of a venture capitalist. Unfortunately, the savvy that some VCs have picked up when it comes to dealing with open source has not yet rubbed off on TT folks — and let’s face it, TT orgs doesn’t have the wherewithal, the time, or the inclination to gain that degree of knowledge. VCs look at a whole range of variables in assessing the potential success of a project. TT orgs look at the one thing they can most easily quantify and protect: “what’s the IP?” It might be worthwhile to hook up the smart VCs who “get” open source with some of the larger TT orgs who don’t. Seems like it could be a win-win: VCs get an inside track on cool technology; TT orgs get a more reliable set of indicators about what makes open source profitable.

* Because TT is seen as a revenue stream, university policies make it difficult/impossible to go around them. TT orgs don’t have to “kill” open source projects, and generally they don’t; they just never give permission. Allow me to explain by way of a brief skit: “Hi, Dr. Doom, can I release this work from my thesis as an open source project? Yes, you say, I just have to get clearance through the TT office? Okay, great! Hello, TT office? I’ve got this software project I’d like to release as an open source project. You’ll look it over and get back to me? Great! When can I expect to hear back from you? Hello? Hello?” (Exeunt omnes, laughing.)

* Some professors just release their work anyway, and the ones who do often use the guise of “publication” to do so. Which reinforces the importance of creating a journal for this purpose; not only will it help solve the publish-or-perish issue, it may also help with the TT issue. I’m glad that it’s one of the key focuses (foci?) of the TOS group.

* There is *zero* information for TT orgs to look at when it comes to open source. This was the message that the C4 folks left me with: how will TT folks learn if someone doesn’t produce guidelines for them to follow? The C4 folks vowed to work with us on this problem, if we could help give them some direction. I hope we can figure out how to take them up on that offer.

A very useful meeting for me; I learned a lot. And Chabriol, thank you so much for my speaker’s gift. The dogs absolutely loved the treats. Definitely the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received as a speaker.

Waterloo — couldn’t escape if I wanted to

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