By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
A recently issued report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) served as the backdrop for a discussion on the changing landscape for technology transfer during last week’s Life Science Tennessee (LifeSciTN) annual conference (LST|CON) in Nashville.
Representatives from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF), and Vanderbilt University explored several recommendations outlined in the report. The 27-page document, titled “Technology Transfer Evolution: Driving Economic Prosperity,” was issued this month.
“In evolving toward broader participation in university economic engagement, technology transfer offices will develop deeper relationships with industry and other community partners; broaden their reach to areas such as education, technology development, and entrepreneurship; and integrate more closely with other supportive administrative functions such as industry contracting,” APLU states.
The report identified five topics: (1) engaging the local and regional ecosystem; (2) redefining expectations of technology transfer offices; (3) adapting innovation management structures; (4) fostering an entrepreneurial culture; and (5) supporting university start-ups.
Vanderbilt’s Alan Bentley summarized the challenge very well at the end of the discussion. “Tech transfer offices are being asked to do more with the same resources,” he said. Prior to that summary comment, the panel described several challenges but a number of evolving ideas.
On the first topic, Bentley cited some of the changes that are occurring at his and other institutions as their commercialization offices evolve. “You can’t force your faculty to work with companies,” he said, adding that “technology transfer offices are looking deeper to find connections and interests. Universities are also recruiting faculty to better align with local companies.”
UTRF’s Richard Magid echoed Bentley’s thoughts, noting that “a clear part of our mission has been economic development for Tennessee.” As his organization evolves, Magid said that it is important to shift from just reacting to requests to being more proactive. That stance manifests itself in various ways – from being a front door for the private sector to helping researchers understand the more commercially viable paths for their work.
“We’re giving them (researchers) tools at the start of the project,” Magid said. Those tools include the most promising pathways from both scientific and commercialization perspectives. UTRF has also added an Entrepreneur-in-Residence to help.
The tech transfer role at St. Jude is different, Chad Riggs observed. “We don’t do start-ups,” he said, but quickly added that “we are challenged to increase our interaction with industry.” One opportunity to do so is the organization’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility. Another is a program to sequence patient genes. “We will attract a commercial partner” for the latter, Riggs said.
As is the case with any discussion of tech transfer, measurement or metrics is always central, particularly in a changing landscape. Much of the panel discussion on that topic centered on the importance of recognizing that connecting researchers and companies is more than just licensing deals.
“We spend a good deal of time looking at the right metrics,” Magid said. Acknowledging that revenue is still important, he added that “we are also looking at start-ups, industry partnerships, job creation, and student placement.”
Bentley concurred, but cited a key conundrum. “Two metrics (revenues derived from licenses and impact of technologies) are sometimes at odds,” he said. “Our office gets credit for licensing revenues,” he noted, but not a lot of credit for sponsored research dollars from industry agreements that tech transfer personnel help generate.
What other innovative approaches are they taking?
“We’re building a program to build a better innovator,” Bentley said in describing an initiative to help faculty. He also cited the increasing importance of proof of concept funds that universities are developing.