Major research universities, like the University of Washington, are highly motivated to protect the innovations of their researchers and shepherd these innovations towards business opportunities through a process called technology transfer. Let’s pause here for…
a very brief history of technology transfer: Before 1980 the government largely owned the intellectual property (IP) rights to technologies that emerged from federally funded research efforts and permitted use of these inventions through non-exclusive licenses. Because exclusive use could not be guaranteed, companies were unmotivated to invest the significant resources required for commercial development, and universities faced a difficult and confusing path to commercialization. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permits IP ownership by universities, who in turn are expected oversee patent protection, promote commercialization, and extend exclusive licensing. This act led to a significant enhancement of the infrastructure (read: jobs!) for technology transfer at universities.
Ok, back to the job. I was referred to a woman at the University of Washington’s technology transfer office, called Center for Commercialization (C4C), by a neighbor who is well connected in the Seattle biotech world.
How does someone become a tech transfer professional? The majority of C4C staffers have either a PhD in science/engineering or a JD, and some grad-school-philes have both. It’s worth noting that although a PhD is the preferred degree for someone coming from a science or engineering background, rarely does the job require the depth of expertise gained in a PhD. Instead, the job requires the ability to quickly absorb new technical information at a level sufficient to understand both its shortcomings and selling points.
Tech transfer, I learned, will not be a good fit for someone who is uncomfortable with a large workload or earnestly pins hopes on winning the lottery with each ticket. Let me explain. Since patent processing is expensive and time-consuming, the tech transfer office has to rigorously vet new technologies before proceeding with the commercialization process. Even then, very few patented technologies generate any substantial licensing revenue for the university. Much like a large pharmaceutical company, tech transfer offices process a vast number of patents and licensing deals hoping to occasionally hit the jackpot.
For the University of Washington, the winning ticket was Dr. Benjamin Hall’s yeast patent, which has been licensed for numerous vaccine developments and has generated over $250 million in revenue for the university (!).
Vaccinated against hepatitis B or HPV? I hope you said a little thank you to Ben Hall and the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.
What’s a day like in the tech transfer office? The good news for the monotony-averse is that no two days are the same. One important part of daily work is meeting with research teams at the university to assess their new developments.
Here’s where the necessary interpersonal skills come in: we grad students know that researchers sometimes love and protect their research almost as they would a small child. The job of the tech transfer team is to perform a full physical exam on that child, ask whether it plays nicely with others, then hold its hand while selling it under contract to a business venture (ok, the analogy broke down there, but you get the idea).
I saw three major draws to a career in tech transfer.
First, the field is uniquely positioned at the juncture of the research, business, and law worlds. This means smart people will be populating the tech transfer office from a variety of backgrounds.
Second, it means being among the first to learn about emerging technologies and inventions.
And finally it seems that there could be a great deal of satisfaction in guiding promising research to a position where it can have a tangible impact on people’s lives.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns and cancer fighting robots though: the position seems incredibly demanding on multiple levels, from processing patent paperwork to executing due diligence to managing the personal relationships required to bring a project to completion. The woman I met with described a large workload, constant multitasking, and the stress of deadlines as realities of the tech transfer world.
Check out the links page for links to more information about technology transfer.