Technology Transfer: At the Crossroad of Business and Science


After defending my graduate thesis at the University of Toronto, I experienced a feeling of accomplishment and success. However, happy endings always lead to new beginnings, and like many recent graduates, I was left with the question, "What do I do next?"

Having spent 2 years in the lab, I figured out pretty quickly that I did not have the passion or talent for research. Hence, continuing toward a Ph.D. or looking for a research position in industry was not an option for me. A lot of people I knew with technical backgrounds found successful careers in sales, so I thought that would be an interesting choice to consider. I worked briefly as a sales manager for a local biotech company, and although I enjoyed the business exposure, I found that I missed the discovery and idea generation that first drew me to graduate work. How could I combine by interest and love for technology with business?

After doing some research on the Internet and speaking to several friends and mentors, I finally found what I had been looking for: technology transfer!

Defining "technology transfer" is quite simple; it primarily involves taking discoveries generated in the lab and transferring that knowledge to industry, turning it into commercial products and applications. Technology transfer plays an important role in innovation. Great discoveries are made within academia on a daily basis, and it is vital to both the economy and society that these ideas are developed. Take insulin as an example. Frederick Banting discovered it at the University of Toronto in 1922. Had this discovery not been transferred to industry and commercialized, millions of diabetic patients would not have been helped.

I began my career in technology transfer as an intern at the University of Toronto Innovations Foundation in April 2000. The internship program, which is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's Intellectual Management Program, gives people like me, with limited business training, an opportunity to get exposed to the field. I realized quickly that technology transfer is a dynamic and eclectic field. Not only does one need a strong technical background to understand and appreciate the science behind a discovery, but one also needs to have an understanding of intellectual property law and business practices to fully appreciate its commercial value and impact in the marketplace. After spending 9 months in the internship program, the Innovations Foundation offered me a full-time position as a technology manager.

So what the does job entail? When a researcher or student in the life sciences field first approaches me with a new discovery, I have to assess its commercial potential. This assessment falls primarily under two areas. First, I need to determine whether the idea is patentable and what level of protection can be obtained for the discovery. This requires searching through publication and patent databases to ensure that the discovery is novel, useful, and not obvious. Second, I need to assess how marketable the discovery is to our commercial partners (which include both companies and investors). This requires identifying a potential commercial product from the discovery and determining the market size, demand, and competition for this product.

When I have determined that the discovery is of significant commercial value, I work with the inventor to obtain patent protection. This requires the help of a patent agent, who assists in developing an appropriate patent strategy for the technology. Once the patent is filed, I help develop a marketing strategy for the technology. If licensing is the preferred option, I market the opportunity to companies that I feel will be receptive to the technology. If a start-up company is the preferred option, I work with the inventor to develop a business plan and then proceed to market the opportunity to investors. After a commercial partner is identified for the technology, I negotiate and draft the appropriate technology-transfer agreement (the fun part!). The job is never truly finished, as I must monitor these agreements to ensure that the commercial partner is reaching its financial and developmental milestones.

After spending almost 3 years at the Innovations Foundation, I am happy that I made the transition from research into the field of technology transfer. I enjoy the dynamic nature of this job and the new skills and experiences that I acquire with each and every project that I work on. Just recently, I completed a deal that involved raising and securing Cdn$1 million in financing for a start-up company. I was exposed to venture financing, deal structuring, and company formation (e.g., incorporation, shareholders agreements), skills that I would never have developed if I were not involved in such a diverse field. The experience that I am obtaining at the Innovations Foundation is helping prepare me for a career in venture capital and business development--careers that I never thought were possible given my limited exposure to business during my academic studies. Like many of my mentors and colleagues, I plan to use my experience in technology transfer as a steppingstone into these exciting and progressive fields. I enjoy working at the crossroads of technology and business and look forward to the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Nikki Porter works as a technology commercialization manager in the Life Sciences Division at the University of Toronto Innovations Foundation. Innovations Foundation is staffed by over 20 professionals with a wide variety of technology and business experiences and is a leader in the field of technology commercialization. For more information, please visit its Web site at

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