Monday, December 17, 2012

Imagining improved models of technology transfer

There is a growing realization that the traditional model of technology transfer at universities isn't entirely keeping up with the growing complexity and changing landscape of biomedical research and development. Though agreement structures are still evolving and funding sources are changing, a growing appetite for earlier information sharing and partnering have led to new and creative approaches to collaboration.

At Partnering for Cures, five experts in the field of technology transfer and university commercialization discussed new approaches to innovation and collaboration. Moderator Lou DeGennaro of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society began the discussion by asking what recommendations the experts had for dealing with the “growing pains around commercialization” and the consequent tension universities have been experiencing with tech transfer.

Louis Berneman of Osage University Partners was quick to designate himself as a “critical lover” of tech transfer and argued that the metric for measuring success should not be how many university start-ups are in existence, but rather how many went on to “induce further investment.” Berneman added that licensing revenue should not be the main concern.

Other panelists agreed that tech transfer needed to be viewed as a comprehensive process. Chris Coburn of Cleveland Clinic Innovations noted that “[Tech transfer] is all about execution and talent—companies can’t just be good at negotiating deals, they must be attentive to details.” Jodi Black of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health added that innovators and those in tech transfer offices needed to work together in order to attain the necessary intellectual property expertise. She explained that “these ecosystems should be developed in a way that rewards culture change and values commercializing innovations.”

Regis Kelly of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences reminded the audience of the urgency of addressing tech transfer challenges when he stated that he was on a mission, mainly inspired by his wife who has Alzheimer’s. Kelly said that the “rate of getting ideas out of the university and into the marketplace to help people has to be accelerated” and that “tech transfer offices are too focused on faculty” even though the best people to start companies are post-docs, those with “fire in the belly.”

In Robert Urban of Johnson & Johnson’s opinion, tech transfer relies on people, and bringing people together gives technology the opportunity to realize itself. He offered an example from his time at MIT, where he was recruited to help launch an interdisciplinary institute to create a new way to tackle oncology, a field that is “buried alive in data.” Urban asserted that “biologists needed to be put in an area where they could be supported by tech people” so that they are close enough to interact and collaborate. The institute includes biologists, technologists, and mathematicians. In five years, this collection of individuals has created 17 companies, which have raised $300 million in capital.

In closing, the panelists agreed that better project management is a key catalyst to advancing this field. Kelly and Coburn both stated that there was a shortage of information, and Coburn suggested profiling the 75 largest academic medical centers so there would be a central database of information about their medical innovations. Berneman emphasized the importance of not focusing on licensing revenue, but instead on future investment, while Black stated that regulatory and business expertise needed to be “in-house” at research institutions and companies for better decisions to be made. Urban’s advice was to encourage transparency and find personnel that were able to “adapt to the journey [of tech transfer],” even if that means starting the process over from the beginning, if that is what is needed. DeGennaro summarized by saying, “It’s not just about how many new grants there are or how much money has been accumulated, but rather a need for project management [of tech transfer] in a way that hasn’t been thought about yet in an academic setting.”

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