Postdoc Opportunities: Transitioning to Tech Transfer

It's another late night in the lab. You are in a slump. And you're wondering whether a career in research is really for you. Yet you love the stimulating, albeit frustrating, scientific research environment. But maybe there is a solution--there are scientists who stay in touch with the latest and most exciting research by acting as liaisons between researchers and companies. These scientists mediate the transfer of potential technologies and intellectual property from academia to industry. Can you see yourself, maybe wearing a business suit, marketing a promising discovery made at your university to a biotechnology company and doing the legal paperwork to make the deal happen? Then, perhaps a career in technology transfer is for you.

Technology transfer offices are common on the campuses of major universities that want to capitalize on the discoveries made and the inventions designed under their roofs by converting academic research into technology. Tech transfer involves assessing scientific research, applying for patents and licenses, and dealing with the companies interested in the technologies.

Maybe you are interested in tech transfer, but your experience has been entirely at the bench. You know your science, but you are not familiar with business and legal matters. How do you learn the ropes and gain the necessary experience to make the jump to tech transfer? This problem has been addressed by two universities in the U.S.: The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, both have programs in place to train postdoctoral scientists in the legal and business aspects of tech transfer.

The program at Penn is a career development opportunity for senior postdocs offered by the Center for Technology Transfer (CTT). It began as part-time volunteer work, coordinated with the training program of the School of Medicine Office of Postdoctoral Programs. Volunteers spent about 6 hours a week learning tech transfer during business hours. Last year, the program expanded to four full-time, 1-year fellowships in Tech Transfer/Business Development.

Derval Gaughan, Ph.D. in molecular biology, is one of the current full-time tech transfer associates at Penn. She began as a part-time volunteer at CTT with the consent and support of her postdoc advisor. As an associate, she has learned about the different facets of technology transfer. "Associates participate in facilitating start-up companies, writing business plans, marketing and licensing new technologies as well as negotiating inter-institutional, material transfer, sponsored research and confidentiality agreements," states Derval. During her training, she has gained confidence in approaching companies with technologies developed by Penn researchers. About her experience, Gaughan says, "Participating in this training program has been a very exciting experience for me, and it has given me the opportunity to apply my scientific knowledge to a new career, which has been both challenging and rewarding."

The tech transfer internship program at the University of Michigan is run by Elaine Brock, the director of the Medical School's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Research, a lawyer who was also trained in health services administration; and assistant director Maria Sippola-Thiele, a former National Cancer Institute postdoc who subsequently got her M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. They, and other leaders in the Medical School, realized the potential of the scientific expertise of postdocs for technology transfer. "The market for well-trained technology transfer licensing specialists is tight. This fact, combined with a need for additional staff who are well versed in science and also for ready access to a pool of students and postdoctoral fellows, moved us toward the notion of growing our own licensing specialists. The postdoctoral progam not only serves our ongoing need for deep science expertise but also creates a career entry point and results in fully capable licensing specialists that we have first access to hire," notes Brock.

Kathryn Tullis, Ph.D., was the first tech transfer intern at Michigan and had previously trained in human genetics. As an intern, she worked in the Technology Management Office. She learned about start-up businesses, contractual language, patents, licensing, and intellectual property during her nearly 2-year internship. A typical project began with reading faculty proposals for patents based on discoveries made in the medical school's labs, then determining the marketing and patent potential of the discovery. If the discovery had potential, Tullis presented the plan to the faculty committee for approval. Once it was approved, she worked with the patent lawyer and the scientist to finalize the patent proposal application. She also marketed sellable ideas to companies.

The only negative aspects of Tullis's internship experience at Michigan were that she was paid as a postdoc and she had to explain the label "intern" when dealing with members of the business world, where an intern is typically an undergrad doing a summer project. Even though her advisor initially reacted "violently" to her decision to leave the bench, they subsequently made amends. Kathryn has found her social skills put to good use as a tech transfer trainee while staying in touch with the cutting edge of science.

And the future is bright. Both Tullis and Gaughan are very optimistic about careers in tech transfer, saying that their training will likely lead to future jobs on either the academic or industry side of technology transfer. And in Tullis's case, she has already made the next step--she was recently hired as an associate licensing specialist in the Michigan office.

Both Penn's and Michigan's tech transfer training programs are centered on biomedical research and both plan to expand their programs. For example, at Michigan, there is a desire to include engineers in the program. At Penn, CTT is seeking funding to extend their fellowships to two years. And for postdocs interested in life "off the bench," both programs offer a great way to get the job training and experience you need to make the switch to a career in technology transfer.

Ellen M. Palmer recently completed her Ph.D. in Immunology at the University of Chicago. Currently, she is a postdoctoral research fellow at Boston University.

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