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Consultants deal with backlogs

Emory uses data on workload and efficiency to help manage staffing decisions

This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

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In many ways, the world of tech transfer is not unlike other industries when it comes to staffing challenges: to hear employees and management tell it, there is constant pressure to do more with less. Lack of resources is certainly not a new issue in technology transfer, but there can be specific instances when it really hits home. For Todd Sherer, PhD, CLP, RTTP, associate vice president of research administration for Emory University and executive director of its Office of Technology Transfer, his “Aha!” moment came when his boss showed him a graph depicting the cumulative number of regulatory changes applicable to research institutions since 1991. (See Figure 1.)

“It’s a picture worth a thousand words,” says Sherer, noting that 1991 was the year in which a cap rate of 26% was implemented on administrative costs. “There’s been an increasing sense of staff feeling overwhelmed and that graph explained it in a short, succinct way — it did a better job than anything I’ve ever seen,” he comments. Sherer adds, “The fact we’re expected to be much more than we ever were before — supporting economic development, start-ups, industry expert programs. In most offices in the country there’s this general sense people feel more overwhelmed than they’ve ever been.”

Seeking staff efficiency

He is seeking to address this challenge, at least in part, by pursuing greater efficiency. Achieving that goal, Sherer continues, requires additional data and metrics, as well as greater awareness in the office — “understanding that you’re not trying to say somebody is not doing what they should,” as he explains it.

He has attacked the challenge on two different fronts: the industry contract side and the licensing side. So far, he reports, there has been more activity on the industry contract side.

With industry contracts, he explains, “we are looking very closely at the size of the portfolio; it’s interesting that this had not been done as much in the past.” The examination includes looking at the actual number of clinical trial agreements, the number of research agreements, the number of amendments, subcontracts, NDAs, and no-cost extensions “so we could get a better handle on whether we had a balanced case load,” says Sherer.

In addition, he notes, the office is now starting to apply weighting to those various agreement types and “in and out” data on a monthly basis, providing every analyst their overall turnaround time, as well as everyone else’s number of contracts in and out by type and individual.

“We give that not because we expect them to balance things themselves, but to be transparent,” Sherer explains.

Turnaround time is computed as an average, while in and out data is an exact measure. Weighting might show, for example, that if one analyst had 15 CDAs, four amendments and two research agreements, they might be doing a better job compared with someone who had 10 CDAs, six amendments and 10 agreements. “The weighting is not yet finalized,” says Sherer. “It took years to modify the industry contracting database.”

On the licensing side, some of the logic is similar, says Sherer. Workload items being considered include who has what in their portfolio, and where to send the next disclosure, which may be based on current load rather than any history with an individual inventor or department. “We’re looking at cases, but also at ways of how to characterize and weight those portfolios,” Sherer says.

Contractors help handle overloads

On the industry contract side, says Sherer, use of outside contractors has become a key strategy for dealing with periods of overload — but one of the greatest barriers to success has been the complexity of the TTO’s processes.

“We have these database systems and it may take two pages just to diagram how IT interfaces with each other to track industry contracts,” he explains. “You can’t just bring in someone who can negotiate a contract; you have to show them where to enter data, and so on.”

The training period, he says, is at least six months just on processes alone, and “the longer the better.” Accordingly, he adds, “you have to hope [contractors] are still available 12 months from now and that you have enough funding” to bring a contractor in.

Sherer has also found you may need to bring prospective licensing contractors to campus to facilitate training, and you may also need to provide them with a computer. “If they use their own computer, they require support from the IT department to get access to all they need,” he explains.

For those reasons, Sherer looks for contract staff who “at a minimum have domain expertise in doing the work; they have negotiated industry contracts or done tech transfer. If they have training on our system that would really be preferred. We also look for proximity in a consultant; we prefer they be in the same time zone.” The trainer could be an analyst or a licensing associate they work with, he adds.

Dealing with backlogs

One of the key challenges in staffing at Emory is determining when contractors are needed and when they are not. This has been aided by the new approach to calculating turnaround time, Sherer asserts. “It’s not all that magical,” he says. “One of the other things we collected in that data is knowing when we have a backlog. When we know in-and-out data and compare it, we can see when we fall behind.”

In fact, he says, the office is in the process of recalling one contractor for licensing help based on its current workload. “We used them for a year [an industry consultant], then stopped for three or four months,” he says. “And now we’re looking for a way to bring them back and plug them in again.” The office is also looking for someone who could help with routine documents.

Sherer says he has been pleased with the new approach to using consultants to manage workload fluctuations. “There have been challenges, but we knew what the challenges were going in,” he says. “We have definitely convinced ourselves we can engage consultants as long as we focus on the lessons learned.”

The trainers, he adds, have come to feel their added time commitment has also been worth it. “One of the challenges is to demonstrate at the end of a year the benefits that might have occurred that [staff] were not aware of, and see all the gains — not just what they were personally involved with,” says Sherer.

Funding, of course, is another challenge. This has been particularly true with licensing consultants, Sherer reports. “We were only halfway through before we ran out of funds,” he says. “They need to be plugged in more to realize the gains; we’ve had them longer on the industry side.” If you are only going to have someone for a couple of months, he adds, “you’d better think long and hard about what you’re going to ask a person to do.”

Given the general scarcity of resources, how does Sherer get the funding for these consultants? “One of the key components of my job is identifying where we need additional resources and how to get them,” he says. While resources vary from year to year, he points out. “if you lose a position you have the salary system; you can look elsewhere in the salary budget for $30,000 to $40,000,” he says.

Finally, says Sherer, addressing the ebb and flow of staffing needs has required an attitude change on the part of existing staff. For example, it is not always possible to immediately find additional help when it’s needed; in such cases a “pinch-hitter” may be required. “If [a project] takes too long and the individual is now on vacation, you do not want it to sit around another two weeks; somebody else has got to pick it up and take it to the goal line,” he explains. “There had to be a change in mindset to ‘We’re all in this together,’ not just ‘What’s on my desk?’”

This is important not only for completion of the current task, but also for increasing the odds of getting more help in the future, Sherer notes. “You can’t get additional resources if you are not already performing at maximum capacity; you can’t just ask for another person,” he explains.

And who is responsible for identifying when a “pinch-hitter” is needed? “We’ve looked for ways to identify that,” says Sherer. “In industry contracting it’s the supervisor.”

Keeping your eye on long-term benefits can sometimes lead to short-term efficiency sacrifices, he concedes. “It actually takes a lot of effort to figure this stuff out. You can’t imagine how much time we spent last year getting [data] out of the industry contract database,” says Sherer. “So if you spend so much time micromanaging the detail of a portfolio, for example, you have to be willing to compromise some on your efficiency while you put the system in place. It will distract some of your resources in order to get the long-term benefit.”

Several benefits realized

Sherer says, in fact, that the new approach has already reaped a number of benefits on the industry side. “When we inherited [industry contracting] two years ago I asked what the average load was that we should expect a contractor to handle,” he recalls. “Now we have a good year and a half’s worth of baseline data as to what sort of caseload people can handle. We also created an aged agreements report, which is now done systematically; it had been done ad hoc.”

Although he’d like to see the number lower, currently the average load “is around 50 contracts at any given time per analyst,” he reports, although much of that load is in the form of clinical trial agreements rather than full-blown sponsored research deals.

Transparency, he continues, has gone a long way. “We remind people we are not doing this to surprise them or to make them fail,” says Sherer. “Key performance indicators are a big deal now, and we can show them to faculty, or committees, and give them a greater degree of confidence that we are squeezing out as much efficiency as possible.”

In fact, the performance measures have helped enable Sherer to increase his licensing staff. “The data collection has enabled us to make the case we can add one position — our first since 2005,” he notes. “This approach creates transparency and creates a compelling case.”

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


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