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Frequently Asked Questions: Knowledge Transfer for Universities and Research Institutions

Key issues and core concepts

Knowledge transfer is a process that allows research results, discoveries, scientific findings, intellectual property (IP), technology, data and knowhow to flow between different stakeholders. Most commonly, the term refers to the transfer of such assets from universities and research institutions to industry or governmental institutions, thereby generating economic value and industry development.

  • Formal and informal channels: Knowledge transfer occurs via both formal and informal channels. Formal channels typically involve a legal arrangement through which the parties clearly establish the terms of the transfer of given intellectual assets. Common examples are licensing, start-ups and spin-offs, contracts, research projects, etc. Informal channels, on the other hand, refer to personal contacts and hence to the tacit dimension of knowledge transfer. Examples include human capital mobility, publications, teaching, interactions in conferences and seminars, informal exchanges between researchers or academia and industry, students entering the workforce, etc.
  • Technology transfer: While the term knowledge transfer is often used synonymously with technology transfer, they have different meanings. Technology transfer concerns transfer of innovative solutions of problems that are protected by different intellectual property rights. Knowledge transfer is a broader term and covers other areas of research, including social sciences, as well as less formal transfer mechanisms.

The reasons are multiple, starting with the fact that universities and R&D institutions often deal with early-stage technologies, very far from market penetration and use, which makes any projection of the future benefit extremely risky – at this stage it is very difficult to define potential fields of use and thus to identify a suitable market in which technology would be exploited. The other impeding element is the lack of IP professionals with appropriate skills to conduct IP valuation.

Forms of knowledge transfer

In the context of formal channels of knowledge transfer, it is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as a standard contract or agreement. Some universities and research institutions propose standard models of agreements as part of their IP policies, but such models are only to be used as a starting point, a support or a tool, and need to be adapted to the specific circumstances and requirements of each case. It is crucial to consult an IP lawyer from the beginning of the negotiation and in particular when signing the agreement.

In today’s knowledge-based economies, the prevailing model of IP collaboration among academic and business organizations is “open innovation”, based on licensing deals among various participating partners. Therefore, there is a growing interest on the part of innovation stakeholders in acquiring more practical knowledge about licensing as a useful tool for transfer of knowledge and IP.

Franchising can be defined as a business arrangement, whereby the goodwill, reputation, technical expertise, trademark and know-how of the franchisor are combined with the investment of the franchisee for the purpose of selling goods or rendering services directly to consumers.

The outlet for the marketing of such goods and services is usually based on a trademark or service mark or a trade name and a special design of the premises. The licensing of such a mark or name by its owner is normally combined with the supply by that owner of technical know-how (usually protected by the copyright on content of the Manual containing know-how based information) and in situ assistance. Simply put, in a basic franchising arrangement the franchisor has developed a successful system for conducting business, and the franchisee wishes to reproduce and operate the same business system, using the same name, usually in a different geographic area.

Other topics

Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs) are usually in charge of managing the transfer of knowledge and technology to industry and of managing IP assets of the university, but their mandate may be broader and cover any interaction or contractual relation with the private sector.

Ideally, KTOs would be self-sufficient and eventually generate additional income for the universities. However, experience shows that not all KTOs manage to become self-funded, and even when they do, start-up funds are generally required for a number of years. In some countries, governments support the establishment of KTOs by means of financial and/or technical assistance. National patent offices are often called upon to provide technical support to KTOs, particularly in the early phases.

KTOs may be internal to the institution, attached to the university or faculty authorities, or the responsibility for knowledge transfer may be transferred to a separate agency, foundation or university owned company. The establishment of joint KTOs for groups of universities or PROs that are based in the same region or specialize in similar fields is an option that has been implemented by a number of institutions in developing and developed countries alike. One of the main reasons for establishing joint KTOs is that individual universities may not generate sufficient work to justify the creation of a specialized office with skilled human resources. Arguments in favor of such an approach emphasize the importance of having a critical mass and the possibility of hiring highly skilled human resources at a lower cost for each individual institution. Nevertheless, it may also be argued that it is important that KTOs are within the university itself so as to have more direct interactions with the researchers and to avoid situations of institutional mistrust when the office is shared with other institutions.

For more information about IP laws and regulations in different countries, consult the WIPO Lex database.

Every country has a number of IP laws and other implementing rules, regulations and policies that can affect knowledge transfer-related processes. Some countries have specific laws on knowledge transfer, technology, innovation or university-generated IP. There may also be relevant provisions in patent and industrial property laws, trademark laws, copyright laws or other pieces of national legislation. Universities and PROs may also have knowledge transfer-related regulations in their own institutional IP policies. International treaties and bilateral arrangements in force in a given country could also affect knowledge transfer processes. It is always important to consult the relevant provisions and an IP lawyer before engaging in any knowledge transfer-related activities.


WIPO offers a broad range of advice, resources and support services to universities and PROs and promotes IPRs management and knowledge transfer processes in member states through thematic projects and capacity building programs. WIPO provides member states with advice and assistance on legal framework, policy analysis and IP management; it conducts capacity building projects and publishes tools, manuals and training materials. WIPO also undertakes a growing range of activities to support the development of IP policies for universities and PROs around the world.

WIPO also provides platforms (WIPO GREEN and WIPO Re:Search) enabling collaborations in specific areas of knowledge transfer and partners with public and private institutions in the organization of forums with the aim of facilitating the matchmaking between technology providers and technology seekers.

The WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center provides dispute resolution advice and case administration services to help parties resolve disputes arising in the area of research and development (R&D) and technology transfer, without the need for court litigation.

For more information please see our Supporting Technology and Knowledge Transfer website.

WIPO provides assistance to universities and R&D institutions in WIPO member states, based on requests submitted by the member states’ governments.

Knowledge transfer related assistance may be sought with national bodies established by relevant laws and policies to support knowledge transfer in your country. One of the main IP related service providers is the national IP office, in particular in the area of IP protection.

Further information can be obtained from our dedicated webpage IP Policies for Universities and Research Institutions. In some developing countries, Technology and Innovation Support Centers (TISCs) provide inventors with information and services on a local level.

The WIPO Inventor Assistance Program (IAP) can also help inventors from developing countries with limited financial means, by matching them with patent attorney providing pro bono legal assistance.

It is paramount to seek professional legal advice and consult an IP lawyer or attorney in your country at the earliest possible stage.

More questions?

If you couldn't find an answer to your question on this page or through the Knowledge Transfer for Universities homepage, then feel free to contact us.

Disclaimer: The questions and answers provided on this page serve a purely informative purpose and are not a legal point of reference. They do not necessarily represent the official position of WIPO or its member states.