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‘Breakfast club’ puts Emory technologies before VCs, entrepreneurs

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Intellectual Property Marketing Advisor. This publication has now merged with Technology Transfer Tactics monthly newsletter. Click here to subscribe and gain access to all past articles.

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It may sound like a relatively modest undertaking, but when it comes to marketing its technology Emory University’s Office of Technology Transfer’s semiannual Breakfast Club is “probably the most effective thing we do,” according to Todd Sherer, PhD, associate vice president for research and director of technology transfer.

The breakfasts are held at the Emory Hotel & Conference Center, located adjacent to campus. “We do it at a nice venue and serve a nice breakfast,” says Sherer. Breakfast starts at 7:30, the program begins at 8:00, “and we wrap it up in an hour,” he adds, allowing attendees to come ahead of heavy traffic time and “be out of here and on to other things in their day.”

During the hour they receive on average four technology pitches of 10 minutes or less each. “We also have some sort of introductory presentation; it could be me giving an update on our current fiscal year or the one just closed out — how we did, and the deals we made — or it could be an update on our product pipeline; success of licensees; or information on a particular center like our drug-screening center from the head of that center. These are brief as well,” Sherer notes.

All that is asked of the attendees is that they provide feedback. “We provide pieces of paper on the table and ask them to jot down thoughts or notes,” Sherer says. “If they want to ask questions in front of the group or talk individually later, that’s great. But we want feedback, feedback, feedback.”

‘A more effective marketing tool’

Sherer says the idea for the breakfasts came up about three years ago. “We wanted to create what we thought would be a more effective marketing tool,” he explains, which led to the concept of the Emory Breakfast Club. “We wanted to create a small forum for our business community to get them together, market our technologies, offer a program, enable them to network with each other, and thank them for being available to us throughout the year on an ad hoc basis,” he explains. “We wanted something relatively small and interactive, and we really feel like we have hit the mark from a marketing and networking perspective.”

One of the reasons the event has worked so well, he continues, “is our strong commitment to giving quality technology pitches. This would fall flat and die on the vine if we lulled ourselves into a false sense of security and just came up and gave the standard pitch people listen to all the time.”

Sherer explains what sets the Emory pitches apart: “Before any technology is pitched at the breakfast, first of all we get together and go through two rounds of selecting the technologies, and then two rounds of rehearsal,” he says. Case managers are required to rehearse twice in front of the rest of the licensing team before pitching the technology externally.

“We give each other feedback, they go back and adapt the pitch, do it a second time, and further revisions are made before they give the pitch live,” Sherer continues. “I’ve been to so many pitches over the last 20 years, and what were supposed to be five-minute pitches were 20, and way too science-like, and they just couldn’t hold peoples’ attention.”

Case managers must understand the technology, but even more important is their handle on the business opportunity that technology represents, he says. Both the pitch presentation and the business proposition must be compelling. “When we go through the selection process, if something is not a start-up we have to remind ourselves to ask if there’s something compelling about the technology,” Sherer comments. “Otherwise, you might miss something that’s a potential start-up. We market early-stage technologies, and we want to sell them until we’re blue in the face.”

The quality of the pitch, he sums up, is what determines the attendees’ perception of the event. “We’ve found that these business people do not feel we’ve wasted their time as long as we give a compelling pitch,” he asserts.

Resisting ‘temptation’

Sherer says that despite the success of the event, the frequency will remain the same. “We’ve resisted the temptation to do more,” he says. “Quality might go down, and there may not be as much anticipation if we do it too frequently.” Accordingly, he says, attendance is still by invitation only. “Attendance grew because people who hadn’t attended the event at first heard it was well done and there were well-rehearsed pitches — in other words, it was worth spending the morning,” he explains.

Emory has an e-mail database of people who have been invited in the past, and they are sent a series of several invites. “The first is a ‘reserve the date’ e-mail; the second reminds them and gives them an agenda and a list of the technologies we’ll be pitching; and the third, sent a day and a half before, says in essence ‘please remember the breakfast club,” he says.

The event is also posted on the OTT website, providing a link to the Breakfast Club (http://www.ott.emory.edu/For_Industry/Breakfast_Club_Presentations/index.cfm). The page not only describes the event, but it also includes a video of the prior session; visitors can select introductory remarks, or specific pitch presentations.

The initial meeting drew about 20 attendees, but Sherer adds that Emory was never looking for huge attendance. “We only wanted 40 or so; we’re now at the 40 to 60 people we wanted,” he says. “It’s kind of gotten to be a ‘Who’s Who’ of the life science entrepreneurial group of Atlanta, so people come to meet each other, too. We’ve had examples of partnerships between attendees.”

In addition, one license has just been completed for a technology presented at the breakfast club. “We have plenty of other examples where we’ve found an entrepreneur to work with us on a project,” Sherer adds. “There are always situations where we have access to funding but we may need an industry expert to be lined up with.”

In addition to the hopes for landing deals out of the event, Sherer looks at other outcomes as well to gauge its success. “The attendance — we want it to be strong” in terms of who attends, he notes. “We look for venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and corporate development people.” Other goals include “good feedback and/or potential partnership requests” and “constructive feedback on technologies pitched,” Sherer continues. In addition, he’s hoping to engender “good ‘buzz’” among attendees — “people interacting a lot with each other and not just with us.”

The breakfast club has also turned out to be a morale booster for his staff, says Sherer. “During the time leading up to the event we always hear a fair amount of grumbling because it takes so much preparation time,” he notes. “But after it’s over, it’s a good sign when we see associates ‘high-five’ themselves because they know they nailed the presentation.”

Contact Sherer at 404-727-5550 or ttshere@emory.edu. 


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