Commercialising ideas generated in the lab--the role of a technology-transfer professional--is an expanding career in the United Kingdom. The University Companies Association (UNICO) estimates that there are approximately 1200 technology-transfer professionals in the United Kingdom working in academia, with many others working in industry or consultancies. The figure is rising at an estimated 20% per year.
A career transition to tech transfer is an attractive option for researchers who have an interest in commercialisation and the processes that surround it. But how do new technology-transfer professionals learn the ropes? What training is available to ease their transition to a new career? Science's Next Wave looks at a U.K. tech-transfer course that offers participants skills-training and networking opportunities that can help their professional development.
Training for Budding Tech-Transfer Professionals
The majority of those working in academic tech transfer have come from a background in scientific research--industry experience or an MBA are considered pluses but are not generally required--so there is a need for professional training in technology transfer. For those seeking a structured entrée into the world of tech transfer, research councils, scholarly associations, and even law firms offer tech-transfer-related training for those who work--or intend to work--in academia.
One organisation, called Praxis, offers courses designed to give budding tech-transfer professionals--those in the job for 6 months or less--a foundation in all aspects of the business. Set up by the U.K.’s Cambridge/MIT Institute in 2002, Praxis is now an independent, not-for-profit company that runs tech-transfer courses throughout the U.K. Praxis is about to enter a strategic alliance with UNICO, which represents technology transfer professionals.
Praxis’s "Fundamentals of Technology Transfer" course--their most popular--is a 3-day residential workshop. The majority of the course's attendees are working in a technology-transfer department at universities or research institutes, but the course is also potentially valuable to professionals working in a commercial capacity, at, for example, a consultancy firm. The "fundamentals" course runs several times per year throughout the U.K. The Praxis organisation also runs a number of 1-day courses focusing on specific issues, such as spin-out companies, advanced licensing, and business development. Praxis officials advise those who are in the early stage of their tech-transfer training to attend the "Fundamentals" course before these advanced courses, but the fundamentals course is not a prerequisite.
The "Fundamentals of Technology Transfer" course includes modules on how to evaluate a business opportunity, how to decide whether the best option is to spin out or license the technology, and how to protect intellectual property (IP), among other topics. The course components are taught by means of presentations followed by group activities such as the discussion of case studies and role-playing activities.
One role-playing element of the Praxis training is the negotiation component. Lee Webster, who took part in the course last year, says that "one case study involved some attendees playing the part of the technology-transfer office, others those of industry, and both were given separate briefings about a fictional patent and what each side wanted from the deal--then we tried to negotiate a deal." This experience has helped Webster in his role at Manchester University, where he teaches enterprise and advises university start-ups. "I am now far more aware of what industry might want from a license or collaboration, and this makes negotiation from my point of view a bit easier," he says. He would, however, have liked to have heard firsthand experiences of the technology-transfer process from academic inventors, as all the material was presented from the point of view of either a technology-transfer office or industry.
Writing Agreements and Contracts
Another unit of the course concentrated on writing precise license agreements for university-owned patents and how to avoid mistakes that could lead to legal problems. Jon Styles, who mentors students with business ideas at Manchester Science Enterprise Centre, says the course helped him "to take far greater care with the wording of license agreements." Styles says he now realises that "care must be taken in ensuring you are not signing away future discoveries without realising it or preventing yourself from publishing important findings."
"One of the best aspects of the course," says Styles, "was the networking." Laura Tennant, a project manager at the University of Manchester Incubator Company Ltd. and formerly a Ph.D. student at ManchesterUniversity, agrees that the opportunity to meet others in the field was important. "There was a very friendly atmosphere between people and a surprising lack of competition between different institutions, with people willing to share experiences and ideas," she says. A members’ area now exists on the Praxis Web site where former participants can share their ideas.
Although no course can replace professional experience, says Styles, he feels that the Praxis course "consolidated much information I was already using day-to-day, but gave me a good insight into the roles of others in the technology-transfer process such as lawyers and financial experts."
Such a course can even open avenues to a career transition. One recent attendee, Alan Ahern--a postdoc at Imperial College London at the time--attended the course to try to break into the technology-transfer field."I became interested in a job in tech transfer when my former boss founded a biotech company, but I knew that career changes for postdocs can be difficult." A former colleague now working in tech transfer recommended the Praxis course. Although typically the course fees are paid by employers (the fees range from £545 to £795), Ahern funded his own place, and his effort paid off. "It was a great opportunity to meet people with similar experience--or lack of--and a potential source of job opportunities," he says.
Shortly afterward, Ahern gained a business-development position, closely related to tech transfer, at Imperial College Innovations. "Employers were impressed by [me] taking this step and agreed it showed a commitment to changing career in addition to the skills developed," he says.
The technology-transfer professionals that Next Wave spoke to all noted that since postdoctoral positions in the United Kingdom have been deemed "training" positions by law, universities and research institutes are now required to provide training for postdocs, as for other fixed-term contract staff. Consequently, there has been an increase in the availability of technology-transfer courses within universities, as there has been with other science-related training. Although not as comprehensive as Praxis, these other courses provide a taste of what the profession is about and can give attendees an idea of whether a tech-transfer career might be agreeable. Attendance at such a course might also encourage participants to commercialise their own research.
Other Technology Transfer Courses
As more organisations are becoming aware of the value of technology transfer and the need for training, they are beginning to offer a range of courses. These vary from 1-day events to a year's funding to take a sabbatical from your academic position to work on your spin-out company.
The Royal Society of Chemistry runs, on an infrequent basis, day events covering best practice in technology transfer and IP issues related to chemistry. They generally offer discounts for members.
Those who would rather remain in the lab while commercialising their own research should consider the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's (BBSRC's) Enterprise Fellowship scheme. The fellowship pays a year's postdoc salary to allow the fellow to concentrate on the commercial aspects of the research and write a business plan. The Wellcome Trust offers longer-term funding for those wanting to commercialise their biomedical or health-care-related research while staying in the lab.
Universities with a Science Enterprise Centre (SEC) also offer workshops and longer courses for Ph.D. students and postdocs in business issues for scientists.
Robert Phillips is an Enterprise Fellow at Manchester Science Enterprise Centre.