Back to Articles
October 30, 2023

AI & IP: Safeguarding Innovations in Your University Tech Transfer Office

Standing on a rickety bridge, looking down on rapids. Credit: Benjamin Davies on Unsplash.
Standing on a rickety bridge, looking down on rapids. Credit: Benjamin Davies on Unsplash.

Universities are hubs of cutting edge innovation and IP (intellectual property). Your tech transfer office (TTO) is crucial to connect academic research with the commercial world, by marketing faculty innovations. AI can help you market more efficiently and to a wider set of potential licensees, with less work.  However, AI's vast potential also brings challenges, such as IP theft and ethical dilemmas.


  • TTOs bridge academia and commerce by marketing university innovations.
  • AI aids TTOs in marketing but brings IP and ethical concerns.
  • These concerns can be mitigated through an AI policy that addresses AI tool adoption and use.

The Scale of AI: Solutions and Risk

AI’s capabilities are powerful and vast, promising to revolutionize sectors from health to finance. Yet, the magnitude of such capabilities can also amplify risks. As Reid Blackman noted in his "Practical Guide to Building Ethical AI", AI can lead to reputational, regulatory, and even legal pitfalls (see link 1 below). A number of large corporations, as well as startups, have been sued over AI – whether for misuse of data for AI training, or discriminatory outcomes of the AI.

The challenges extend beyond the AI models themselves. The source of the data used to train the AI, and its collection methods have drawn scrutiny. Questions arise about the authorization of data collection and its intended purpose. It’s not just about whether an AI tool can gather such data, but whether it should.

For sensitive data, such as medical data or data relating to unpublished IP, it is particularly important to know where the data goes, and how it is used. Many AI startups are understandably focused on delivering the best user experience – but this may mean that data which you provide may not be adequately safeguarded.

Operationalizing AI Ethics to Reduce Risk

Policies and guidelines that include AI ethics can help to reduce overall risk – for example, of misuse of your TTO’s data. Many TTOs – and universities more generally - have ethical guidelines, and compliance procedures to ensure that these guidelines are followed. These guidelines and procedures can be updated to enable the safe selection and use of AI based tools.

You aren't alone in this. Many companies are also creating or updating their own policies and procedures for AI applications. They are also struggling to find the right balance between excessively permissive policies and those that prevent the benefits of AI from being realized.

Striking the right balance is crucial. Too stringent policies can stifle innovation and efficiency. The key is to ensure that ethical considerations don't stagnate progress but guide it responsibly.

Academics Versus Business: TTOs at the Crossroads

TTOs face yet another problem in the application of AI: the need to balance business and university perspectives. Universities and businesses often approach ethics from different perspectives. While academics tend to prioritize societal implications, businesses emphasize risk mitigation.

TTOs, navigating both worlds, must cater to both philosophies. The extent of the alignment of a particular TTO with either side can often depend on institutional or governmental policies.

Accessing Institutional Resources for AI Policies

As noted above, many universities already have resources for handling ethical dilemmas, and ensuring that they act ethically. These resources can be leveraged to help develop AI policies and guidelines. For example, existing university governance committees or boards can be leveraged to elevate AI and data concerns.

If none exists, you could create such an ethics committee, incorporating experts from various domains who already belong to the university community. For example, if your university has a hospital that conducts medical research, ethics committee members who oversee such research could be asked for input on how to develop these types of guidelines.

With such a committee or governance board, you can develop a set of AI rules. These rules should meet your university’s ethical standards. In addition, they should also clearly include identification of stakeholders and governance structures, state measurements of compliance success, and provide mechanisms to ensure compliance.

The rules should be clear, both for auditing compliance and for enforcement. For example, they should address such questions as how a new AI tool should be assessed before any TTO data is input. Specific steps to obtain approval of such a new tool should be clearly stated – as well as the consequences of failing to follow proper procedures.

AI Implementation: A New Frontier For TTOs

In the rapidly evolving landscape of AI and technology, safeguarding intellectual property and upholding ethical standards are of paramount importance for TTOs. As stewards of academic innovation, you and other TTO officers have a unique opportunity to harness the power of AI in bridging academia and commerce, while also leading the way in defining ethical AI usage standards.

By leveraging institutional resources, being proactive in policy formation, and integrating a balanced perspective that considers both academic and business needs, your TTO can ensure that it remains at the forefront of technological advancement. The objective is clear: utilize AI's transformative potential responsibly to amplify the impact of university innovations in the wider world, without compromising integrity and ethics.

Please comment below on your university's AI guidelines. You can schedule a meeting with me if you have more questions.

Link 1 (recommended article on developing ethics guidelines for AI in companies): “A Practical Guide to Building Ethical AI”, by Reid Blackman, October 15, 2020, HBR:

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash