converting science to business

Within the confines of our academic bubble, the daily work we do may seem small. We weigh salt. We set timers. We solder wires. But it helps to remember that this often humble work may form the seed for innovative practices and products that have tangible impacts on the world around us.

Unfortunately, while we have scientific curiosity in spades, the academic world lacks that which is necessary to steer discoveries from the windowless halls of the science building into the broad daylight of the marketplace: money, a strong business acumen, and probably more money.

So we rely on experts in commercialization, who convert inventions and innovations into viable products that can be readily manufactured, distributed, and used to meet needs. In the university world, commercialization is preceded by a process called technology transfer, which I featured in an earlier career profile.

The image above illustrates the two stages: think of technology transfer as the coordinated handoff of the test tube-shaped baton from the scientist to the businessman, and commercialization as the acceleration that follows this exchange (this drawing, of course, a rendering from the great Faceless White Men in Stereotypical Attire relay race).

It’s also illustrative to look at the kinds of questions asked during each of these three stages:

Research: How will this project advance the field? How are my results meaningful?

Tech transfer: Can this innovation be patented? Does this invention have licensing or startup potential?

Commercialization: How, where, and when can we introduce this invention to the market? Who is our target audience and how do we reach them?

I met separately with two commercialization advisors at two different nonprofit organizations.  Each of them took nonlinear paths to arrive at this field.

One completed two post-docs after her PhD in physiology, while simultaneously developing skills through ventures outside the lab. While founding a post-doc association at her university, she learned how to generate buy-in for a new idea. Owning an exercise franchise exposed her to sales, customer service, and business strategy. Writing grants on contract for a biotech company strengthened her skills in crafting proposals and addressing impact.

She has drawn on each of these experiences in her current role as the commercialization director for a state trade association whose mission is to support the life sciences industry.  Her role is particularly geared toward promoting healthcare breakthroughs through the early venture stage:

Say you’ve invented a cheaper and less terrifying alternative to Lasik eye surgery. First of all, please let me know, because the strength of my prescription is outmatched only by my fear of lasers in my eyeballs. But if you have, and you need help bringing it to market, you could turn to this organization for commercialization advising that covers everything from how to present the perfect pitch to finding funding to connecting with strategic partners.

I also spoke with a woman whose career path took her from a master’s degree in science to a research administrative role to patent work to technology transfer and commercialization. Along the way she obtained an MBA and worked in business development for a private sector research contractor.

She is now a commercialization advisor at a nonprofit organization that seeks to transform global health through an entrepreneurial development of innovative, low-cost health solutions. A major goal of this organization is to promote technologies, like vaccines for epidemics in the developing world, whose deployment may not be adequately driven by market forces. As such, commercialization of these products relies on cultivating strong partnerships with both public sector partners, like universities and government agencies sponsoring the work, and private sector entities, like biotech companies that have experience bringing a product to market.

I always ask what a typical day is like, and I learned that in commercialization a day might involve phone calls with project stakeholders, negotiating terms for a new agreement, working with legal advisors to optimize contracts, and meeting with team members to strategize approaches. Notice how everything I mentioned there involves working with other people? Strong interpersonal skills are a must in commercialization, as are negotiating prowess, an ability to think strategically, a quick mind and a willingness to learn some lawyerese.

Interested in pursuing a career in commercialization? Start by getting involved in student clubs like UW’s SEBA, or see if your university’s technology transfer department offers internships. Also seek out industry-focused events to start familiarizing yourself with the business side of science. Be prepared, though, to work your way up. Commercialization roles like those profiled here are filled by people with years of experience in the business of science.

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