How Notre Dame’s IDEA Center Uses Digital Contract Management to Accelerate New Business

Technology transfer offices help identify and commercialize university invitations. These teams support faculty and students by providing input on how to best align inventions with market needs and guide inventions through the disclosure, patent and licensing agreement process - even at times spinning these inventions off as new ventures.  Critically, they are responsible for negotiating and managing the numerous agreements that document and protect these inventions and the revenues they generate. 

The University of Notre Dame’s IDEA Center offers idea development, commercialization and business formation for student, faculty and staff entrepreneurial efforts. It also features a for-profit investment fund aimed at developing promising early-stage technologies. 

While the IDEA Center is at the leading edge of new innovations being developed by the university, its contract management process was bogged down by manual paper reviews that got in the way of their efforts to seed young startups in a timely manner. In a webinar, James Thompson, associate vice president for innovation at the IDEA Center shared how his team had modernized their legacy contract management processes in order to accelerate new business. 

A centralized approach to innovation

At Notre Dame, the IDEA Center serves to centralize all entrepreneurial activity for the university, acting as a single resource hub to cultivate an idea to become a full fledged start up. The IDEA Center applies a repeatable process that they call the “commercialization engine” to evaluating, de-risking, funding, mentoring and commercializing innovations - a formula they believe results in ventures that have the potential to change lives.  The revenue generated by these ventures can either go out into the community to create economic opportunity or it can be reinvested into the university to further its mission. 

The limitations of manual agreement processes

Taking an idea from inception through to the launch of a new business is an agreement-intensive, multi step process that involves a number of teams. To fulfill its goal to bring new ventures to market as efficiently as possible, the team at the IDEA Center had to address a number of challenges.

The team needed to:

  • Optimize their existing staffing resources
  • Share agreements across an environment comprised of cross functional teams and diverse IT operations 
  • Flexibly incorporate new agreement terms
  • Move away from static, manual spreadsheet-based reporting 
  • Reliably report on agreement status and demonstrate compliance

The volume and complexity of agreements associated with launching new ventures made it extremely difficult to centralize reporting on the agreements that they had signed, and even more difficult to ensure consistency across agreements. This meant that information sharing with other offices at the university–such as the general counsel’s office was difficult and lacked the transparency that Thomas and his team wanted to provide.

"It was about a year ago...that day three confidentiality agreements came across my desk. I received one from our commercialization group, I received another from our student entrepreneurship group, and then I received another from our business development group. There were three different formats of the same agreement! And one of the templates was eight years old! It was incredibly frustrating.”

- James Thompson, associate vice president for innovation at the IDEA Center

In addition, Excel was used as the solution to everything. Data was collected and maintained in complex spreadsheets, like listing contacts and equity assets. The data was all there, but it was  tough to use. Excel could no longer be used as a database for data. It should only be used to analyze the data.

Finally, Thomson wanted to be able to look at his leadership and tell them with confidence what had been executed and that the correct agreements were signed. The only way to do that was to manually check every agreement, print them out and physically bring them to the general counsel’s office. Something had to change. 

Scaling the operation by adding people or offshore resources was simply not sustainable, nor did it offer them the transparency that they wanted to achieve in partnering with other parts of the university. So, it is not surprising that they turned to technology to aid in addressing these slow downs.

How contract lifecycle management can help

“Our team selected Docusign CLM quite simply because it met our requirements. It allowed us to automate the workflow and approval process, create a clause library so that the team can easily access updated contract language, and it gives us that much-needed ability to report on agreements completed” said Thompson.

They started with one of their most frequently used agreements–a one-way confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA). The team mapped the process for the agreement and associated interactions and then programmed that automated workflow in Docusign CLM.

Now the people who are responsible for kicking off CDAs for each of the individual departments can initiate the agreement with a simple form. By adding the company name, address, the name of the signer and their email, the approved template for the CDA is emailed to the correct contact.

Once Docusign was implemented, CDAs and related documents could be reviewed in the cloud. They could be signed from anywhere without having to wait for any one person in the approval process to be available and in the right place to receive all of the paperwork required. 

And now the team has a single repository to store completed agreements, instead of an Excel spreadsheet. With so many different departments, key players, and agreements, a cloud based solution for contract management allows for faster accessibility, better organization, standardization and tracking. 

The team estimates that using Docusign CLM has saved them almost 45 mins of time per contract. The team executes approximately 258 CDAs per year for a savings of 194 hours per year. The extra time has allowed over-extended team members managing the agreement process to recover much-needed time and put their energies towards mission-oriented work. 

Confidentiality agreements are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential for the team. Thompson envisions extending the CLM solution to as many as 20 agreement processes within his organization alone. 

  • 2 Way CDA
  • Employee Confidentiality Agreement
  • Memorandum of Understanding
  • Engine Program Agreement
  • Lease Agreement 
  • Convertible Note/SAFE
  • Stock Purchase
  • Term Sheet
  • Warrant
  • License Agreement
  • Inter Institutional Agreement
  • Material Transfer Agreement

Watch the webinar: How Notre Dame’s IDEA Center Uses Digital Contract Management to Accelerate New Business to learn more.

Interested in how universities can use digitized agreement systems to meet specific needs? Visit the eSignature & Agreement Solution for Higher Education page and contact sales to find out how Docusign can help your institution process agreements more efficiently.