Episode 13 – Time and Timing with Cameron Begley

Sep 28, 2022

About this episode

We are delighted to share episode #13 where Cameron, our podcast host, reflects on the range of themes we have had through our first 12 podcasts and in which he specifically explores the importance of time and timing in tech transfer.


CB: This podcast is dedicated to Lachlan McKenzie, my dear friend who I did chemical engineering with at the University of Melbourne, who died of cancer in July of 2022. A man who ran out of time.

The older I get, the more I realize that time is the big, precious, unrenewable resource.

(Brené Brown, author, educator and research professor at the University of Houston, Texas).

CB: Hello and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. My name is Cameron Begley, host of the Tech Transfer Talk podcast, managing director and founder of Spiegare, and chair of the Board of Agtechcentric. After a year of podcasts, we’ve explored a lot of tech transfer concepts, areas of innovation, definitions of tech transfer. What has become a consistent theme through our discussions is the importance of relationships, which universally underpin all tech transfer activities and our daily lives. Indeed, our guests agreed to come onto the podcast largely through the relationships we have had over many years. However, as I reflected on the podcasts in the shadow of my best friend’s passing, it occurred to me that another theme bubbling through the series has been the concept of time.

Brené Brown, of whom I’m an unabashed fan, struck this note in her Netflix seminar, which we shared at the opening of this podcast: ‘The older I get, the more I realize that time is the big, precious, unrenewable resource.’ We need to value time and in technology transfer and commercialization. This has struck me in a few ways: time, timing, and timeliness. The idea that time has value is a tenet of economics, and as we learn the time value of money, a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, using time to discount future promises of money, and such financial engineering. However, the time value of people and organizations is less often reflected in the modeling pertaining to tech transfer opportunities, license or transaction values and the like. How often do transactions drag on reflecting a lack of value being placed on the time of all parties involved? From one side? Is this the most important matter at hand, and is it getting the energy it needs? Are we valuing the other party’s time in these discussions? What, if any, thought is given to going quicker to conclude matters in order to value time? Of course, there can be tactical reasons why discussions may be wanted to be extended or dragged out. But is this creating value for all? Or the perception of optionality for the tardy party? And does that optionality really exist? Or is it hoped that the perception of optionality might increase value while time marches on?

The intersection of time and optionality was reinforced by a short parable I heard, which I will refer to here as the ‘last pool car phenomena’. A colleague needed a vehicle for work purposes and approached the carpool manager for a vehicle. With one car remaining, a request was made to use the car. ‘No’, came the response, ‘I may need it for someone else to use’.  Notwithstanding the obviousness of that user making the request in that moment, what is unfolding here is an attempt to create optionality without valuing the time of anyone involved. If the car is dutifully handed over with compliant paperwork, all parties get on with their day’s work. Instead, the person seeking the vehicle now needs to either not do their work or spend time otherwise finding a vehicle using a valuable resource as a consequence of someone else not valuing their time. Conversely, was this a primitive example of saying ‘no’? It may be a poor example of this, but saying ‘no’ is indeed a skill that requires nurturing in order to save time in many aspects of work and life. We have certainly felt that saying ‘no’, or indeed the inability to say ‘no’, has been a handbrake on the Australian innovation system. By not saying ‘no’, one might keep optionality. But does it ultimately create a time drain on both sides of a transaction by maintaining some hope where perhaps no hope does or should exist?

Saying ‘no’ also introduces a dimension of timing. Timing is everything when it comes to successful technology transfer. And the notion of perfect timing is inherently multidimensional, possibly beyond four dimensions in most cases. What appears to be perfect timing for one party may not be so for another for a breadth of reasons: markets, finance, availability, regulatory, cultural. Indeed, with all those forces, can a party actually articulate a priori or identify in the moment what the perfect timing might look like? And if one decides to wait for the perfect time to move, to transact, is there clarity on what the criteria are that need to be met to describe the perfect time.  

Timing is indeed everything in tech transfer, but very few of the dimensions are controllable by the parties. Why tech transfer is needed, how the parties carry themselves through discussions, and what is offered as part of a transaction, are controllable. Unsurprisingly, we at Spiegare view ‘how’ as a critical, if not the most, critical dimension. Well conducted engagements build relationships and trust for the long term that move beyond the idea or perhaps temptations of shorter term transactional opportunism and dealmaking. Of the externalities to an organization seeking that perfect timing, it is worth reflecting on how long things actually take to come about, be they a transaction, a regulatory shift, a market emerging.

Rudiger Dornbusch said that in economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will and then they happen faster than you thought they could. I would think this quote very appropriate in the world of tech transfer based on our observations. In the transactions appear to take longer than you think, in the context of markets into which technologies make their way to market. The broader implications of Dornbusch’s remarks sit well. A current example would be of RNAi vaccines rushing to market after a very long incubation. The growing acceptance of genetic modification in agriculture might also present as an example. In tech transfer, while timing is everything, surely valuing the time of the parties involved should be a higher calling than seeking out the mythical perfect timing. Could perfect timing be reduced to being first? First mover advantage is a widely debated notion, and whether there are advantages to being a first mover or a fast follower. It’s all about timing.

There are three ways to make a living in this business be first, be smarter or cheat. I don’t cheat. And although I like to think we have some pretty smart people in this building, it sure is a hell of a lot easier to just be first.

(John Tuld in the movie ‘Margin Call’ – 2011).

Janet Barnard recently contended the idea of first mover advantage gets all the love but I’m increasingly convinced of the power of the second mover advantage. Interestingly, in exploring tech transfer with Ed Fish from Bay State Milling, he described first mover advantage as an advantage to be built upon with changing consumer needs, technology advancements, and operational excellence working with a product that is initially good enough. Perhaps the first mover needs to be seen through lens of good enough rather than perfect products reaching market. That idea no doubt has plenty of jargon associated with it such as fast prototyping and expressions of that ilk. But the concept and the successful execution of active product development as a first mover to stay ahead of the competition, is all about timing and valuing time. The fast learner will likely thrive as a first mover, adapting to market and other external feedback. We at Spiegare are not so keen on the fast fail unless it is inherently connected to fast learning. If all there is is fast failure, then that may be a repeating cycle, ultimately not valuing the time of the parties involved.

The speed at which an organization moves in advancing its tech transfer and subsequent commercialization activities could also be seen through the lens of organizational momentum. Mass or resources times velocity being speed times direction. For the engineers listening, I am thinking as a vector and not as a scalar, so the direction we are heading matters. For those that like to pivot, this becomes an interesting move in cylindrical coordinates; that is standing in one spot with radial speed and hence going around in a circle. So, the frequency or cadence that one moves through the tech transfer cycle also matters. At an extreme, one wouldn’t want to be going fast in the circle or perhaps juggling a lot of things fast but not actually advancing any of the matters being juggled. With constrained resources, which most organizations have to some extent, building momentum in any matter then comes to velocity, which ultimately has a time component. Time always matters.

Timeliness is the other associated element. Simply having things done by when promised is a simple way of building trust in relationships which in turn, results in the setting of expectations in relationships emerging or established requiring ongoing management. Timeliness is a result of understanding the value of time amongst the parties and the importance of timing for all concerned.

As I reflect on our podcast guests, I believe that these themes resonate through each discussion. Timing matters to the private sector as they are seeking to generate returns arising from their tech transfer investments. Time and the momentum came through from those who are more closely connected to the research delivery side of tech transfer. Relationships and the time taken for these to establish came from those who have regularly sat at the tech transfer interface, who have sought to build transactions through partnerships that have sustained, perhaps through their valuing of time and a timeliness and communication, specifically around the idea of ‘no’ and the associated management of expectations.

The valuing of time and timing requires some level of reflection and honesty, veracity, if you will, which we explored in our chat with Stephen Angus, but is a theme that sits within all of our discussions on the podcast and I would hope with the engagements we have as Spiegare. Lastly, I want to thank you as listeners of the podcast, you are investing your precious time in listening to our discussions when I am sure there are many things you could choose to do, even sitting in the car in traffic, not listening to anything at all. I do hope that you feel that time is valued by us at Tech Transfer Talk. We value your listening and feedback and look forward to you joining us again next time.

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