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The modernisation process of universities has historically highlighted the necessity of providing support structures to facilitate contacts and relationships between research groups and the outside environment, with the objective of increasing the quantity and improving the quality of collaborative research activity. 

The first steps in this direction have been the internal Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs). Universities have created these internal technostructures within a typically administrative culture. Whilst the benefit of such structures has been undeniable, a number of cultural issues have emerged which need to be considered within the overall picture of how to develop a KTO system. On the one hand, the existence of a technostructure within a highly traditional administrative culture such as the university administration has created a series of acceptability issues with administrative colleagues. On the other hand, research staff who are not used to accessing expert support from their internal administration have not immediately been prepared to profit from the new opportunities made available.

The activities carried out by these structures were initially aimed at pioneering communication with external players. However, as the collaborative culture of research has undergone incremental growth and the quantity of relationships and contracts has increased, so these internal offices have adapted their activities to the immediate requirements of their internal clients (researchers) by providing more routine
support such as standard procedures and methodologies.

At the same time, the growth of external collaboration has motivated in particular the more active universities to extend their KTO activities and take them closer to the market, as well as to create “Innovation Ecosystems”. We have found a wide variety of models across the case studies that we have examined, and we will provide an overview of these solutions in relation to their regional contexts. This will enable other universities to find some comparisons that they may wish to consider, whilst reflecting and planning their own specific strategies regarding their particular environments.

These ecosystems range from externalised offices fully owned by the university or, more often, by local  institutional partners (including in some cases private partners), to science parks or joint laboratories which all maintain elements of the original university KTO services. The more universities reach out to industry or other institutions, the more these peripheral organisations become specialised, whilst also promoting the multidisciplinary aspects of the research being carried out. The involvement of national or regional organisations and funding varies according to the ability of the regions to coordinate research, industry and government activities (Triple Helix model).

As KTO activities move across the border from universities’ internal culture to the competitive external environment, so the emphasis changes from providing basic services to identifying and supporting new initiatives and seeking out new opportunities. The universities that we looked at provided extensive information on these activities and the specific contexts in which these were being carried out.

The Evolution of University-Based Knowledge Transfer Structures

Stephen Trueman, Lidia Borrell-Damian and John H. Smith

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