Some people had the fortune to fall into technology transfer before it was a known career and helped shape the field to become the vibrant, challenging, and rewarding profession it is today. Two of those players are Lita Nelsen, former Director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, and Katharine Ku, former Executive Director of the Office of Technology Licensing of Stanford University who retired from Stanford on June 1st. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lita and Kathy this past fall as part of our new podcast, Research Realized. During our conversation, we talked about the past and future of technology transfer, including their advice for future leaders in the field.
Kathy and Lita both spent decades in their positions at their respective institutions. Before their technology transfer careers began, Kathy and Lita were self-described job-hoppers. However, the work at Stanford and MIT remained so fulfilling over the years that neither Kathy nor Lita had a desire to leave the field of technology transfer.
We hope you find the following snippets just as captivating as Kathy and Lita found their careers. If you want to learn more, including their thoughts on what they’ve learned from one other, working with their respective administrations, and gap funds, you can listen to the interview on either SoundCloud or iTunes.
On Stanford and MIT’s different philosophies on marketing of inventions:
Kathy: At Stanford… [our philosophy is] that we need to make our technologies broadly available and that marketing is also a way to mitigate conflict of interest… We do spend a lot of time and resources to try and market our inventions… At the end of the day, I think Lita would say we end up in the same place.
Lita: Yes, we end up in the same place. I agree that…to avoid conflicts of interest the efforts to market may be valuable. We didn’t do it simply because from an actual work point of view, [it did not result in] more licenses… Stanford’s view, and you can certainly understand it, was that everybody ought to have a chance to license this technology before we let the inventors do a startup. Our view was that inventors … are absolutely critical to successful exploitation of [early stage technologies] so you might as well skip the step in between. I think you could argue either one.
What roles their offices play with startups:
Lita: There has been a change over time. Thirty years ago… [our office] would basically act as coaches and mentors to the startups… Over time, there are now [non-technology transfer organizations across campus that focus on startups] as their major mission and put a lot more emphasis into it so … that role [is] not as critical [for our technology transfer office] as it used to be and we can concentrate more on intellectual property and solving the usual messes on getting a new invention off the ground.
Kathy: At Stanford… we enable startups, but we do not do a lot to help create them… We’ve never helped with the business plan, etc. In the early years, sometimes the inventors or the startup crew might want some introductions to venture capitalists, but that has really changed lately. Our view is that they need to go find their own money, and they can. There are plenty of resources on campus and in our ecosystem. I often say if [the researchers] just go talk to three people, somebody will be able to help them. It’s a very vibrant ecosystem these days.
On building your network and technology transfer career:
Kathy: AUTM… is a very welcoming place. People are looking for friendships in the community. Even now, everyone goes to these meetings and they share stories and they realize they are not in a vacuum at all. All the people in the world now, we can share this common experience of working in the university… As you connect with people, keep up the relationship… Learn to get outside input.
What they will miss most being the directors of their respective technology transfer offices:
Lita: I miss the people, I miss the staff… We were more than colleagues, we were friends.
Kathy: I agree. I love coming into work. I love the people I work with. I love, interestingly enough, the fun and challenge of a new issue every single day. Every day I come into work I wonder what will happen that day. But I’ll miss that the least, too!
Advice for the future leaders of technology transfer:
Lita: Try to teach your bosses, your [administration] that it is not about the money… They have to look at it for all of the other benefits — locally, … it is teaching students and faculty … how to develop technology; regionally, [the benefits are] in terms of economic development; and national and internationally in terms of the impact of the new drugs, the new technology that can help the world.
Kathy: Absolutely do the best you can with the cards you’ve been given… Sometimes people get discouraged by patent expenses or making filing decisions or whatever it is that comes up every day… If you continue to do the best for technology transfer and getting the technology out there, that will be true leadership.