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Vanderbilt TTO undergoes overhaul, expansion in bid to ramp up results

The article below appeared in the January 2012 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here to subscribe.

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In the last six months, just about everything has changed at Vanderbilt University’s technology transfer office. Start with the name, now the Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization. The word “center” is intended to imply a collaborative nature, says the new head of the office, Alan Bentley, who was named assistant vice chancellor of technology transfer and intellectual property development in June. “We changed our name, changed our focus, and rebranded,” he says. “We have a new operating model and changed our mission and philosophy.”

The changes include adding staff in all areas — a rare feat in these uncertain economic times. Licensing staff increased from four FTEs to eight, and two more will be added by the end of February. An additional two administrative support staff also came on board in 2011. “It’s a rare opportunity to be able to expand staff,” Bentley says, noting that he didn’t have to do any convincing. Rather, he was brought in as part of a desired overhaul. “[University administration] wanted us to move in a different direction. They wanted a top-notch program and committed the resources to build a great team.”

He’s confident the investment in the tech transfer operation will more than pay for itself. “We are expanding to generate more revenues, which means that we can pay for our own operations. And to be fair, the office was larger a few years ago, but had shrunk due to attrition,” notes Bentley.

Culture change stresses value creation

Bentley says one his first challenges was to shift the focus of commercialization activity away from merely prosecuting and obtaining patents to creating value. “We try to determine how we can invest in technology beyond patents,” he says.

He and his team are looking at maturation funding, proof of principle experiments, and working with angel investors to put money into testing concepts before any heavy investment. The idea is to bake the technologies for a little longer to ensure they justify more intense attention, and then provide it once the path to market is more clearly delineated. “The typical academic approach is to evaluate, patent, and then market,” Bentley says. “But a patent is expensive, so we are putting money at risk when we don’t know if [the technology] is of interest. I believe a number of universities are moving towards our approach, which is robust because we can find funds internally and reach out for sponsorship from industry.”

Another focus under the new regime at Vanderbilt is to expand outreach to key potential partners outside the campus. Universities used to be much more isolationist, but today’s environment requires developing deeper relationships with local businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors, Bentley stresses. He believes in-person meetings, getting to know the interests and synergistic opportunities with internal and external customers, is key to achieving that.

In his first month, Bentley estimates having close to 100 internal meetings, and half as many outside the university walls. “I’ve given more talks in the last three months than in the last three years,” he adds. “In most tech transfer offices, it’s too easy to sit in your office and worry about paperwork. I say you have to put it aside, get out there and meet people face to face. It’s not an off and on thing. I spend about 80% of my time out of my office.”

It’s been six months since the TTO transformation began, and the feedback has been extremely positive, Bentley reports. “I know most of the people in the meetings now.” Currently still on his long to-do list is a push to make the office’s activities and decisions as transparent as possible. “Many universities have a flow chart of how they evaluate technologies and determine what to support. We had nothing. Now we have a process flow chart, time lines, expected outputs and descriptions of how investors can be involved.”

The overarching goal in all of this has been to increase the number of stakeholders in the success of the center. “Isolation doesn’t work. Local business, faculty, state government — they all have to be invested in our success,” says Bentley. “We formed an external committee to help look at new ventures, and an internal one to help us create new procedures. And most importantly, we listen to them.”

Operating like a small business

Bentley is a firm believer in the importance of managing a tech transfer operation just like a small business, complete with a stated list of goals for issues like staffing, professional development, and training, as well as accountability for meeting those goals. He also sets and tracks key financial and performance goals, and TTO staffers know how they will be judged and what it takes to be successful. “We [in tech transfer] need to be better managers and hold employees accountable for reaching their goals,” Bentley contends.

The Vanderbilt team reviews its core financial metrics every two weeks, both for the entire center and on a professional by professional basis. Thus far, he says the group is a little ahead of its financial and deal flow goals. They have yet to measure stakeholder satisfaction, which is an annual exercise. “But anecdotally it’s extremely positive. We have people telling us that others tell them that they like what we are doing. I think that says a lot.”

For the last fiscal year, Vanderbilt’s tech transfer operations took in $9 million in revenue, inked 69 license agreements, and received 167 invention disclosures. Staff also processed 750 material transfer agreements, which was a new record for the school.

The 2012 revenue goal will fall somewhere between $6 million and $8 million, Bentley says, noting that the higher number for 2011 included a one-time bump from one very large deal. “Based on our disclosure numbers and our research expenditures, we are looking to complete between 40 and 50 transactions (licenses and options) in FY12, and we are ahead of pace on this at the half way point. We are expecting to complete more than 700 material transfer agreements, and contribute several million in sponsored research contracts. We have doubled the licensing staff thus far, basing our staffing numbers on the rule of thumb that an experienced professional with a full docket can manage 25 to 30 new disclosures annually,” he tells TTT.

“I’ve never worked anywhere that any goal except ‘more’ was acceptable,” says Bentley. But he says numbers like patents might not always be higher year by year. A lower number of patents, he points out, could actually be a positive indicator that your technology assessment process is working effectively, weeding out technologies and preventing unnecessary expense on patent prosecution for innovations with little or no commercial potential.

“Disclosure is proportional to faculty engagement,” he says. Boosting disclosure rates is always a positive trend, “but it doesn’t mean that it’s more of the right thing.” What is measured and how it compares to last year must be based on meaningful outcomes, he insists.

The outcomes of his own efforts to transform the TTO at Vanderbilt are still an incomplete picture, Bentley admits, noting some disappointment at the pace of change. “Some of the programs and processes took longer than I thought,” he says.

He notes several lessons learned over the past six months that other TTO managers attempting an office transformation could find helpful. First, when recreating an office culture and philosophy, be sure to clearly signal your change of focus. The Vanderbilt center changed its focus from patent aggregation to “value added,” and signaled its new direction by changing its name, mission, and identity to make sure that everyone knew it wouldn’t be business as usual going forward. “We [also] created a new website and new documents to signal change,” Bentley notes.

Another important lesson, he says, is to make sure you hire complimentary expertise. “If you don’t have new resources, you can repurpose internal ones,” says Bentley. “If you make a few better decisions on patents, you can afford a new hire,” he points out. It’s also critical to introduce goals and accountability, and to use those goals to motivate staff in a way that matches the office’s change in focus.

And finally, he says, actively seek out internal and external opinions on how to improve. “Don’t think you know everything.”

Contact Bentley at 615-343-2430 or alan.r.bentley@vanderbilt.edu.


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