At the Interface: Technology- Transfer Specialists


Take one or more research-intensive educational institutions and add a technology-transfer office, and what you have is extra fuel for Canada's knowledge-based economy. It's no wonder, then, that the technology-commercialization profession is receiving increased attention from educators and governments. Emerging programs that specifically address the shortage of trained technology-transfer managers are opening up new career opportunities for young scientists and engineers in an area that was previously hard to access.

Jobs for technology-transfer specialists exist with technology producers (the institutions seeking to bring their technology to market), with technology exploiters (the companies hoping to obtain licenses to develop the technology), and with intervening organizations such as the Alberta Technology Commercialization Network ( ATCN) consortium. Becoming equipped with the right blend of experience and knowledge for the field ideally means taking part in a mix of formal courses, on-the-job training, mentoring, and networking events. New internship programs, such as those run by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research ( AHFMR), WestLink Innovation Network ( TCIP, which you can read about on Next Wave through the eyes of the interns), and Atlantech Network ( NTAtlantic) offer valuable on-the-job training and the essential "foot in the door" for graduates.

As for formal educational programs in technology commercialization, one that seems to have filled the gap is the University of Alberta's MBA Specialization in Technology Commercialization. The program officially began in 1998; since then, it has graduated some 50 individuals, many with science or engineering backgrounds.

There are other master of business administration (MBA) programs out there with a technology bent. Simon Fraser University, for example, has the Management of Technology MBA ( MOT MBA) which primarily focuses on training managers to work in technology-based companies. And Queen's University is home to the MBA for Science and Technology, a more conventional program that focuses on providing scientists and engineers with business skills.

A Word of Advice

Want the inside scoop on R&D management and technological innovation? Students can join the associations below for a small fee and attend annual conferences, seminars, and workshops, where they can network with senior-level research and innovation managers:

Association of University Technology Managers

Innovation Management Association of Canada

But what makes Alberta's program unique, according to Joan White, the executive director of MBA programs at the University of Alberta, is the fact that it deals with the commercialization of all technologies, including biotechnology, agribusiness, and information technology.

Building such an innovative program required input from many stakeholders, including the business school, the university's Industry Liaison Office, inventors, and even students. Nancy Cranston was "one of the program's guinea pigs," a member of the pilot group of MBA students that helped get the idea off the ground in 1997, at a time when the term "technology commercialization" was relatively new to MBA students. "The first year was a real experiment, and faculty and students were learning together in a dynamic environment," recalls Cranston. The university maintained an open dialogue with the students during the pilot year and continued to seek their advice on how to enrich the program even after they entered the workforce.

The program that subsequently evolved is a 20-month, intensive, full-time MBA that involves completion of core courses as well as specialized technology- commercialization courses. Between the first and second year of the program, students start to implement their newly acquired knowledge and gain practical experience by completing a 4-month internship with a firm in the technology- commercialization field. Then, in the second year, they complete a number of elective courses that allow them some flexibility in shaping their Technology Commercialization (Tech Comm) MBA in the direction of greatest interest, whether that be the management, finance, marketing, or accounting aspect of commercialization, or indeed all of them.

Fresh out of the doctoral program in the University of Alberta's biochemistry department, Tara McCready's lack of business experience was an obstacle to joining the MBA program at first, because of the requisite 2 years of full-time work experience. "When you are a senior member of a research lab, you manage personnel and monitor the funding for different projects. I thought it quite unfair that a PhD didn't qualify as 2 years of work experience," she relates, and that argument successfully got her admission to the program.

McCready completed the Tech Comm program in 2001 and is now Project Manager for the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at the University of Alberta. While doing her MBA, McCready gained valuable experience on the side from writing grant materials and business plans for researchers on campus. That experience, combined with the MBA, prepared her well for her current position. "The hiring committee didn't think it would be possible to hire someone who, at quite a senior level, would be involved in grant writing through to financial management and general management of the people involved. They didn't know that someone like me existed."

Aside from technology commercialization, other aspects of her job require an understanding of medicine, clinical trial applications and regulations, financial management, and regulatory affairs. Her science background, on the other hand, enables her to write effective research protocols and grant applications and allows her to appreciate projects from the perspective of the researchers, "It helps a great deal to understand where they are coming from."

Although she considers her line of work highly specialized, McCready perceives a growing trend for governments to fund large multi-institutional research projects like the one she's working on, hence providing more opportunities for individuals with her training. "The implementation of the projects is a tremendous amount of work and is not something that researchers have experience, or even interest, in doing," says McCready.

Reality Check

Having an MBA doesn't automatically mean a big salary--that's the warning from MBA graduate Nancy Cranston. Some new graduates fall into the trap of too-high expectations, when in fact many of the employers are early-stage companies that can't afford to pay big dollars for expertise. Tech-transfer specialists need to be entrepreneurial and risk tolerant in nature, like the companies they are dealing with, Cranston advises.

Another graduate of the Tech Comm program has found himself running a large- scale, multi-institutional project with an equally large budget. Paul Hodgson is managing the $27 million Functional Pathogenomics of Mucosal Immunity project, headquartered at the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon and co-funded by Genome Canada and industry partners. He too finds his in-depth knowledge of granting agencies and publications, and the organizational skills he picked up during his PhD in immunology at Memorial University, useful in his current job, but he says that the MBA experience is essential for the day-to-day running of the financial and administrative aspects of the project.

The commercialization of academic or government research knowledge is set to become an increasingly important field if Canada is to build its reputation as an innovative developer of technologies. And all of the signs are promising: This year, more companies and institutions are interested in hiring summer interns and graduates from the Tech Comm program. "The job opportunities have definitely increased over last year," White tells Next Wave Canada, adding that although it is too early to make predictions for this year's graduates, the number of opportunities is likely to exceed those in previous years.

McCready also thinks that the future looks positive for technology- commercialization specialists. "Everywhere I go, I meet people--including hospital and university administrators, academic researchers, and representatives of funding agencies, regulatory bodies, and our industry partners--who tell me that they wish they could hire me, or someone like me with a science/MBA background, to manage projects or handle communications or organize their partners," she says. "I often wish I knew more people with a science/management background, because I need to hire them for some of my projects!"

Although the overall capacity of the profession is unknown at this time, it seems that there's little chance of the field drying up any time soon.

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