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Moving Into the Tech Transfer World


For the last 15 months, I have managed a commercialization initiative at The University of Michigan. Working for one of the vice presidents for research, I have learned a bit about the licensing of university intellectual property (IP) and the nuances of university IP commercialization. I've also had an opportunity to interact with "players" in the biotech community in the state of Michigan.

It has been an interesting experience. And I have walked away thinking there really is a need to encourage scientists to enter the field of technology transfer. Scientists need to start ensuring that budgets are set aside for research and development. And they need to start telling the nonscientist members of society--both in governments and in private sector investment houses--why this is so.

Our office worked with faculty members to determine whether or not a technology they had developed had immediate commercial value. If it did not, then we helped the faculty inventor define in what direction the research might be taken to provide marketability, that is, to find it a market niche. In some instances, we identified an existing company that might be interested in licensing the nascent technology, with the expectation that it would also be willing to advance the science. If instead the faculty member wished to create a start-up company, the tech transfer office assisted in determining whether or not the venture would be feasible. If it would, we worked with the faculty member to develop a business strategy, write a business plan, and identify and solicit funds from venture capitalists.

Observing this process has opened my eyes to how important investment is to the biotech industry--investment by the state and federal governments, by private businesses, and by universities. Without these monies, the technologies and IP developed within university research labs really have no chance of reaching the public. From a public-interest perspective, without some type of investment in the biotech industry, basic research will not reach its full potential to benefit society.

Part of the mission of large public institutions is to transfer the technologies and ideas developed by their faculty to the public. Big research universities are increasing the resources they devote to their technology transfer and intellectual property commercialization programs, and this needs to continue. In addition, although it is clear that funding from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation is critical to the continued progress of basic research, I would argue that more funds within these federal institutions should be set aside for technology transfer programs along the lines of the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards.

An interesting aspect of my tenure in managing the commercialization initiative at the University of Michigan has been observing the "mixing"--or what sometimes appeared to be clashing--of two rather different cultures: academic scientific research and business. Faculty members are not businesspeople, and investors and CEOs are not scientists. They represent two different types of training and cultures. This difference makes it clear that individuals with extensive basic research experience and business background are valuable to the process of technology transfer. Persons with working knowledge of both research and business have a role in facilitating interactions among faculty members (those with the IP), investors (those with the needed money), and strategic and business consultants (those with the marketing sense).

In case you're wondering, I have a Ph.D. in biology and did a postdoc in a lab that focuses on proteomics and proteome informatics. The latter part of this postdoc was more a research administration experience, by choice. I had personal and professional interests in the responsible conduct of research, science policy, science education outreach, and the funding of basic research. I chose to move into a commercialization management position so that I might gain some insight into how universities promote the transfer of knowledge from within their walls to the public sector.

Along the way, I have come to more fully appreciate the high-level management skills required to issue grants, to make licensing agreements happen, and to establish successful, productive industry and interinstitutional collaboration--all the behind-the-scenes activities that help universities be all they can be.

I decided to go back to school for a master's degree in public policy because there is a need for individuals who combine expert knowledge of life sciences research and a concern for the societal impact of research developments. New policies, statutes, and regulations promulgated over the next few decades could have a positive impact on the health and welfare of the people of the United States and other countries. But this can happen only if the policies are grounded in a solid understanding of scientific, legal, and policy-analysis systems.

To ensure that the rational implementation of research regulations and support for funding resources remain strong, scientists must be involved. We must work with those persons proposing and making the policies and must make an effort to educate the public on the continued importance of basic research and development. Individuals with backgrounds in both the sciences and public policy have the opportunity to integrate their knowledge from both fields and to serve as an increasingly important conduit between the two.