On technology transfer and kitten piles

I am Experimental Error columnist Adam Ruben’s pseudo twin, the subject of his recent column, “The long harm of the law.” He spoke true: We did live together in a rat-infested slum house. We did spend more than 6 years of Ph.D. candidacy surrounded by decrepit and vaguely menacing electronics. Worst of all, my daughter did once call him “Daddy.”

The most important aspect of Adam’s column, though, is his eventual illumination of technology transfer as the bridge between an academic discovery and a product that benefits the public. (His repeated reference to a “kitten pile” may also be important; I will leave that judgment to readers, especially those in psychology.)

For me, tech transfer is a calling.

More than merely patenting discoveries, technology transfer professionals combine science, business, regulatory processes, and law. Their interest is in realizing the public benefit inherent to those discoveries. When all four gears turn together, academic discoveries make the leap from bench to bedside—or to factory, power plant, or wherever else it can help society.

“Meh,” you say, “we’ve seen this before. Every grant proposal focuses attention on potential applications when they are trying to hide a lack of results.”

Fair point. But here’s an example: The National Institutes of Health Office of Technology Transfer (NIH OTT) is the bridge between the discoveries of intramural investigators within the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and products based on those discoveries. To date, NIH, FDA, and CDC researchers have invented—and the NIH OTT has been the conduit for—core technologies of 27 FDA approved therapeutics and diagnostics that contribute to curing disease and alleviating suffering. Licensees of the NIH OTT report about $7 billion in annual sales based on these licenses. This helps the economy. And these licensees send more than $110 million in royalties back to the NIH, FDA, and CDC each year. This enables the investigators to start the process all over again. This is just a few drops—large drops—in the pool of America’s biomedical research bucket.

For me, tech transfer is a calling. Laugh all you want—most people do—but if your goal in life is to help develop the brilliant, creative, no-company-would-dare-try-this, hot-damn-if-this-works-just-think-of-all-the-good-it-would-do inventions that come out of academic laboratories, what better way to maximize your impact than through the field of technology transfer?

That is why Adam’s illumination of the field of technology transfer is important. He sheds light on the fact that the discovery and development process is more than just a metaphorical “aha” moment. It is complex and lengthy and requires new insights and inputs all along the path. The old saw “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is wrong—patently wrong. Sorry.

Technology transfer is one of the many steps in the discovery and development process. But if you see how the steps fit together, you can better guide your research, your discovery, or (in my case) your career toward something that will benefit the public in an immediate and tangible way.

Speaking of paths, Adam and I continue to travel similar ones. He is helping to guide a promising malaria vaccine through clinical trials. I am helping to guide promising early technologies into clinical trials. We both are fulfilled by our jobs.

In the last few months, my pseudo twin and I both became fathers for the second time, both with boys. I can’t wait until Adam’s son calls me “Daddy.”

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