Breaking Into Technology Transfer


With a degree in the biological sciences and a Ph.D. almost completed, the career advice that I received was essentially "you can do almost anything." As you can imagine, this wasn't terribly useful. One advisor did prove extremely helpful, though, when, after discussing my interests, she advised me to look into patent law, venture capital, or scientific research. I walked away feeling rather overwhelmed but have since managed to combine all of these in one career: technology transfer (TT).

TT is a rather hidden profession, typically overshadowed by its more glamorous cousins venture capital and business development. Nonetheless, it forms the pipeline that moves university scientific research into the commercial arena.

My job involves the commercialisation of research performed at Imperial College, London. We carry out audits of the departments, both to identify opportunities and to educate the researchers in hopes that they will come and speak with us when they make interesting discoveries. We evaluate the technology we uncover or that is brought to us for its commercial potential, and we work with patent agents to draw up patent applications where appropriate. Once we have identified potentially valuable intellectual property, either we seek to licence it, or we form a new company around it.

However, one of the first things I discovered when I started looking into a career in TT is that the few jobs there are can be quite hard to find. Junior positions are typically advertised in New Scientist , as well as the trade press, including Scrip (which can often be found in university libraries). Senior positions are often gained by word of mouth, networking, and through headhunters. In addition, most TT organisations have comprehensive details, including job adverts, on their Web sites. The best way to find these is to go to a university home page and search for their TT office.

There are many universities in the United Kingdom with active TT offices, and it seems that more are being set up all the time. But opportunities exist worldwide, and the United States has a very active TT sector.

Before applying for jobs, it is extremely useful to talk to people in the field, and networking is invaluable. As a bioscientist I have found the BioWednesday events, organised by the London Biotechnology Network, to be particularly useful. People are typically very willing to talk about their jobs. Unfortunately, arranging internships or voluntary work experience might be difficult, as TT executives are very busy people, and most of their projects are confidential.

Speculative letters can be successful; indeed, in the absence of any specific adverts at the time, this is how I got my job at Imperial College Innovations. Nonetheless, expect to be rebuffed. I only received a couple of replies from the dozen organisations to which I wrote.

Don't send any letters, however, until you have done some thorough investigating. Please ensure that you research the activities of the company and university. Find out which science and technology areas a company specialises in, how large the company is, and the size and location(s) of the organisation they serve, for example. In addition, some TT organisations have either an office or clients outside of the United Kingdom, and it is valuable to know in advance whether it is possible to gain experience overseas. And, although it might sound rather fundamental, do make sure you understand the specifics of the job; it is amazing to see how many people who write to us clearly do not know what TT is. There is no particular best time during the year to apply.

In my covering letter and CV, I stressed my broad scientific background, and I emphasised the commercial experience I had obtained. (At the time of applying I was in a short-term contract as a business analyst, and I had previously worked part-time in my father's company in market analysis.) Although in some professions a Ph.D. might be considered a disadvantage, I ensured that my experience as a Ph.D. student was not underplayed. I believe the skills of analysis, organisation, presentation, and writing acquired while obtaining a Ph.D. are very valuable in a TT career.

TT is a relatively new career in the United Kingdom, and the qualifications sought vary from university to university. But a scientific background with relevant commercial or industrial experience is the starting point. My colleagues have, variously, scientific M.Phil.s and Ph.D.s, MBAs, and experience in both small and large companies and management consultancies.

Regardless of background, though, if you're going to be successful in TT you'll need certain skills and qualities. These include an analytical and organised brain, experience with computers, and the ability to talk with a variety of different people (bench researchers, university administrators, patent agents, venture capitalists) on a wide range of scientific and commercial topics. Most important, you need to be able to communicate well and sell the technology.

If you are lucky enough to land an interview, my advice is to be prepared for almost anything. I was asked to talk about my scientific background and whether I had any experience with the legal profession or had used my negotiation skills in a particular instance. I was also asked how I would handle a particular invention. It's very important not only to think on your toes but to present a reasoned argument. I'd recommend asking sensible questions and to ensure that the company actively encourages training; it's essential to keep up to date in this field.

I was successful at my first attempt, and I have been at Imperial College Innovations for 2 years now. I have gained a tremendous amount of experience. I've reviewed dozens of inventions, filed tens of patents, negotiated several licenses, and set up a company. I've also had the opportunity to attend courses, workshops, and networking events, and I've met a large number of people. The job is very varied and can be intense and all-consuming, depending very much on the particular projects on hand.

In terms of job satisfaction, there is nothing to beat securing a licence or launching a new company. Judging from the number of people I've met who have been in the industry for many years, I'd say that once people are in TT, like me they are reluctant to leave.

If this article whets your appetite, I'd also recommend that you look into university academic liaison positions, which cover TT from the point of view of companies interested in licensing university research. To find out more about TT, look at the Web sites of BTG, the Association for University Research and Industry Links, and the U.K. University Companies Association. For more information about intellectual property, see the World Intellectual Property Organization Web site. The information on these sites can be very useful when applying for jobs and during interviews.

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