It’s the stuff of nightmares for tech transfer professionals, but for MSU Technologies it was a living disaster.
“Faced with the lack of financial files and under-populated information, nobody could get a handle on what was going on,” recalled Jennifer E. Folger, IP Finance Coordinator for Michigan State University’s TTO, MSU Technologies, as she recounted the challenges of trying to get her office’s finances together. “In 2007 we really could not easily get our hands on royalty payments or invoices; distribution records could be attached to the original payment or nowhere at all.”
In years past, rapid growth of tech transfer workflow — due in large part to a major commercial success of a cancer drug – monopolized staff time, Folger reports. But the office did not increase personnel and expertise to match the increased workflow, and over time standardized processes and controls were lost as activity increased.
Folger recounted the five-year project MSU undertook to overhaul their TTO’s financial tracking system. The overhaul included building a new, more reliable and useful database, as well as developing standards for routine distributions, reimbursements, billing interest and account statement communication. She also outlined a model for TTOs that wish to complete a similar process, including significant staff changes and bringing a consulting firm on board.
The multi-year project set the stage for a significant turnaround at MSU, including growth of spinout projects year over year since 2012 and a 97% increase in licenses and options for FY 2014.
The project began with the addition of more staff. “We went from eight employees to 20 and added people with greater experience,” Folger noted. “Adding people in these functional areas allowed us to pay more attention to records and still keep work flow moving.” Among the full-time people she added were coordinators for technologies; one for agreements, and one for finance. Cross training, she added, was also an important part of the effort.
Folger was unable to start making improvements until all old agreements were reviewed and corrected in the TTO database, and she could finally decipher which technologies and patents were linked to each other. “Finance couldn’t do their part until the agreements were cleaned up, and agreements could not do their part until technologies and patents were correctly mapped,” she explained.
“We were working to try and clear the path, but we could not stop doing our daily work to fix or update everything that had come before,” she continued. “New processes needed to be standardized for all steps. For example, once we deposited a check following the new standards, we’d know what to do with every check that came in the door. Then invoices; we created a standard process so that we can now do that right every time. Each new step helped us learn what did and didn’t work.”
The project was “an exercise in logic, but when we were finished we knew exactly what we had left to distribute, and what licensees had paid us — a very good place to be compared to the ‘I don’t know’ of the past.” A detailed article on the intensive effort to improve MSU’s financial systems appears in the June issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the entire article, along with hundreds of other case studies and best practices for TTOs in our eight-year archive for subscribers, CLICK HERE.