It’s hard to work, write, or think about anything without the context of COVID-19 these days. Living at the intersection of academic institutions and new ventures, I have daily insights into the plethora of programming at universities intended to advance scientific discoveries and see them translated into practice, especially through the activities of the technology transfer offices.
Working as a staff member at an academic institution does not tend to be glamorous. Hierarchy is an inherent trait of a university, and staff typically are not in the upper echelons of the pyramid. Those who do make it to a director level are often subject to the whims of the changes in the administration. One of the first questions I was asked by my colleagues when I started working at OUP was “Why is there so much turnover in technology transfer offices at universities?”
The fact of the matter is that people often change jobs in tech transfer, at least in the United States, although I have seen it in other countries as well. Thousands of people work in the industry across the world. Most of the tech transfer officers I know are working hard for minimal personal financial reward, although they do feel pride in the work they do. They do not share in the upside of the deals they negotiate. They don’t receive large yearly salary increases (and in times like these, there are no salary increases or in some cases there are even furloughs at the academic institutions). Service awards or recognition otherwise by their academic colleagues is rare. The upsides of jobs in industry become alluring.
Given the downsides I noted, the question has become even more relevant during the pandemic — why work in tech transfer? Because you are helping life-saving inventions cross one of the thresholds from labs to patients. Because you have a community that cares about what they do, cares for each other, cares that they make a positive impact. As a professional in the area, you learn about and shepherd along the best innovations scientists are creating — what may be the next industrial robot, the next search algorithm, the next pancreatic cancer diagnostic test, the next COVID-19 vaccine. Each day, you work with passionate individuals whose main goal is to see their baby grow up and do something that makes a difference, whether it transforms the lives of a small population, impacts the globe, or advances our exploration of the universe. The pervasive mindset is “How can I help make a solution a reality?”
One need only look at the many examples from universities to see how this community performs and cares, as highlighted in this PBS NewsHour article in April. Universities stepped up to the plate early in the pandemic to design and mass produce personal protective equipment (see designs and efforts from Columbia, NYU, UMass and Temple, just to cite a few) and the tech transfer offices shepherded many of these solutions to reality, making their way to medical professionals. To help ensure any solutions did not run afoul of legal complications, the tech transfer offices developed simple license guidelines (https://autm.net/about-tech-transfer/covid19/covid-19-licensing-guidelines and https://otl.stanford.edu/covid-19-technology-access-framework). Since the early days of the pandemic, the technology transfer offices have received numerous invention disclosures from researchers eager to help. There are many examples of new tests, treatments, and vaccines to address the pandemic from these academic institutions (link here to potential UNC Chapel Hill therapy, MIT diagnostic, University of Wisconsin-Madison vaccine and Oxford vaccine).
The tech transfer professional’s can-do attitude isn’t a mindset for just this pandemic. For those who stay in this business, this is perennial behavior. While we may enter technology transfer for a variety of reasons, the caring, get-things-done community is one of the reasons the long termers stay. So I’d like to give a huge shout-out to these shepherds of technology — thank you for the long hours, for tackling new territories, for the general make-it-happen mindset that we know you always have, but is especially shining through right now.