Technology transfer is all grown up

kleute /  Aug. 03, 2017


While my colleagues at OUP have recently been outdoing one another on well-researched blogs (herehere, and here), I’ve decided to go the opposite direction and write about some non-data oriented, anecdotal thoughts I’ve had on the technology transfer profession and how it’s changed from a little-known job to an actual career.

Around 15 years ago, while I was working at Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), the calls started coming in.

“Could you tell me how to get into university technology transfer?”

“How did you find your job?”

My own path in tech transfer, not unlike the experience of many others, was one of serendipity — the right place at the right time. I’d planned on a different career, one in medical illustration, but happened to temp as a receptionist at Stanford’s OTL in 1996. When I was offered a full-time position, I hesitated as it meant shifting my priorities. I ended up staying because of the people — enthusiastic, encouraging, smart, and affable.

At the time, most of the people in OTL joined the office with no previous technology transfer experience. They’d come to Stanford from business development or other roles in industry. They’d studied science, but moved out of the lab and into the relationships and agreement part of the business. And working for a university technology transfer office was interesting, but not highly sought after.

So when I started receiving the calls from people interested in a position in technology transfer, it was a noticeable shift. Many of the people calling were currently in the lab, who, like me, decided their fate was not as a principal investigator or as a lab tech — pipetting, running gels, and waiting in line to use expensive instruments. However, they still loved science and were exploring career options to use their deep knowledge and inquiry-based orientation.

A first stop, often close to home for doctoral students and post-docs, was the university’s technology transfer office, sometimes as an intern. However, having a scientific background isn’t enough to qualify for a position in technology transfer. The role of technology transfer officer (or manager or associate or one of the many other numerous titles used by academic institutions) is that of relationship management and business development — with faculty, students, administrators, corporate business development managers, attorneys, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, etc. In responding to these inquiries about technology transfer jobs, I thought about whether the person had the requisite scientific background and, perhaps more importantly, the personal characteristics for a very demanding job:

· Excellent listening skills

· Good communicators, both verbally and written

· Highly responsive

· Logical, especially in order to pick up reading and writing agreements which many new hires have no previous experience with

· Ability to ask relevant questions

· Conversationalists

· Multitaskers who did not get stuck in the weeds

In short: someone who can establish and maintain strong long-term relationships and handle the firehose of inputs that is a technology transfer officer’s daily job.

With the increased scope and responsibilities in technology transfer (see Arundeep Pradhan’s article on the evolution of technology transfer), the technology transfer office isn’t solely concentrating on licensing of its IP, but startup formation, gap funding/translational research funds, industrial collaborations, and a host of other activities. This transformation begs either (or both) an increase of skills of the technology transfer officers or new hires with appropriate experience to address these expanded responsibilities. The growth also means office directors manage a larger staff with differing responsibilities. Considering the new and expanded roles of technology transfer offices, are universities looking to shift to a new sort of leadership or keep the status quo? I think there is a pull both ways — knowledge of how to run the operation, while hiring people who think outside the traditional technology transfer box.

Turnover is also an issue in technology transfer. While the job is exciting (Seeing the cutting edge of research! Working with some of the greatest minds in the world! Helping nascent technologies grow into products to better the world!) and the people working in the offices are exceptional (which I see daily in both my previous and current job), it is also very demanding. Most offices are under-resourced which means very large caseloads. Salaries at universities are typically lower than their industry counterparts. And as a service organization, there is a lot of work and grief without a lot of recognition.

Which could mean that there should be constant opportunities for all of those people calling me, trying to break out of the lab. But somehow there never seemed to be. One characteristic I found for those who did make it into the field was, not surprisingly, perseverance. Add that to the long list of personal capabilities, beyond technical experience.

I’ve been out of the “game” (as a TT professional) for only two years. But, the knowledge and skills required to be an effective TT manager and leader of a TLO seem to be ever increasing and more challenging. As a profession, we still have our critics and, to be sure, some criticisms are justified. But, as a group, I continue to be impressed and marvel at my colleagues’ ability and enthusiasm to do such demanding and potentially world-altering work.

I welcome your thoughts. What are your recommendations for people looking to join the field?

In the next month or so, look for a companion piece to this post — Changing of the Guard — by my friend and colleague, Lou Berneman, founding partner of OUP.

This article also appears in Global University Venturing.