European IP Helpdesk

Bulletin No. 1 Licensing


Most knowledge and technology transfer centres at German universities have been struggling with the same issues for decades: Although transfer and innovation have developed into a long-term task and are increasingly considered a so-called “third mission” besides research and teaching, many universities still don’t have more than one transfer officer, who often has to deal with additional responsibilities at the same time. Only a few larger universities can afford a proper transfer unit. Yet, even in these cases, employees have to work under temporary contracts which depend on limited public funding. Their payment is usually based on civil service collective agreements a fact leading to a different starting position compared to e.g. the US where it is easier to employ industry specialists with their corresponding work experience.

However, if young talented employees can be successfully recruited, they often use the job as a stepping stone which results in a high staff fluctuation. The required profit orientation is another critical issue: Especially when it comes to commercialising the university’s IP, it turns out that the public structures are not designed for entrepreneurial activity. Traditionally,

it is hard to obtain quick decisions as the university management is rather risk-averse and there are various administrative hurdles to overcome, e.g. when it comes to the university’s participation in start-ups.

Organisational structure

For the above-mentioned reasons, Saarland University (UdS) has decided to establish their knowledge and technology transfer unit as a special form of organisation, consisting of a university-internal transfer office and two subsidiaries. In order to ensure an integrated general strategy and to avoid conflicts of interest between the different units, all of them are organised under a unified management. The Office for Knowledge and Technology Transfer (KWT) is part of the university department for research management and transfer which enables the strategic link to the core administrative unit responsible for the acquisition and processing of third-party funds. Like this, transfer has been integrated into a unit with stable long-term financing and corresponding capabilities to retain qualified staff. However, even a business-oriented university administration unit reaches its limits in terms of decision-making speed, risk-taking and flexibility.

Therefore, the KWT focuses on all transfer areas which are not profit-oriented, but rather serve to raise awareness, provide advice and mediation support and often require public funding: awareness-raising and support for entrepreneurs, matchmaking and initiation

of regional cooperation between businesses and researchers as well as the Career Centre.

All commercial activities requiring quick decisions and contracts as well as entrepreneurial risk assumption, are outsourced to a separate profit-oriented company the university’s knowledge and technology transfer company (WuT GmbH).

This 100 percent subsidiary of the university assumes the following tasks:

operation of the university-owned incubator “Starterzentrum” which rents spaces and infrastructure to university-based founders;

exploitation of the university’s IP from biological material and software to patents through the Patent Marketing Agency;

involvement in university-based start-ups;

organisation of the university’s career fair NEXT.

The structure is supplemented by another GmbH, the IT Incubator GmbH. It serves as a company builder enabling the advancement and spin-off development of IT projects with a high market potential. The IT Incubator GmbH was founded together with the Max Planck Innovation GmbH as a joint venture which not

only accommodates teams from Saarlands University and all Max Planck institutes, but also from the other IT research institutes on Saarbrücken campus.

The participation strategy of Saarland University

In 2014, Saarland University decided to go beyond its traditional role of providing regular free start-up consultancy and started to become involved as a shareholder. This strategy enabled the university to gain entrepreneurial influence on the strategic orientation of its start-ups. With the help of the WuT GmbH, it is thus capable to act quickly in the frame of an open participation. In order to guarantee the founders sufficient own shares in their company, the university usually participates with a share of about 10 percent while never exceeding 25 percent.

The university can participate in two ways:

as part of an investment (50,000 EUR maximum) from the own start-up fund;

as part of an IP contribution to the new business, whereby the shares in the company replace the usual upfront payment

Establishing Successful and Sustainable Structures for Knowledge and Technology Transfer at Universities: The Unusual Transfer Pathways of Saarland University

Written by Axel Koch, Saarland University

Saarland University (UdS) is considered a knowledge and technology transfer pioneer in Germany: More than 20 years ago, it opened the first incubator of its own, the “Starterzentrum”. In 2013, UdS was among the twelve German universities honoured with the prestigious title “EXIST Entrepreneurial University”. In 2018, it came second in the founding radar of the “Stifterverband der Deutschen Wissenschaft”, reaching the best result in the category “start-up support”.