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10 key takeaways from Harvard’s ‘Bench-to-Business’ boot camp


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: May 15th, 2019

On May 1st, 44 researchers from Harvard University were invited to participate in the annual Bench-to-Business Bootcamp, which teaches them the skills needed to take their technologies from the lab to the marketplace.

For those who were not able to participate, the Harvard Office of Technology Development, which hosted the event, offered these 10 key takeaways:

  1. Aim high. At the beginning of his career, Kevin Eggan, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, didn’t know where a supply of stem cells would come from or how they might become useful in treating disease. After two decades of innovation, Eggan’s work has enabled researchers to turn the somatic cells of ALS patients back into stem cells, creating a model system for studying neurodegeneration in the lab, as well as for developing a treatment for ALS. “For myself, the thing that has been most productive has been to set my sight on something that’s just over the horizon,” says Eggan, who attended the boot camp. “In that situation where you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, or to take your research to new synthesis, it will often mean that you’ll be an early adopter of new technology, or that you’ll innovate new technologies.”
  2. Help OTD protect your intellectual property before you disclose it publicly. Industry has a lot to gain from university research. According to Leslie Wardwell-Scott, senior director of corporate development and strategic integration at Evelo Biosciences, “companies are able to shave years off their development timelines when they in-license technologies from universities.” But in order to license out those technologies, universities must protect the intellectual property behind them – and faculty can help by disclosing and working cooperatively with TTOs on the patenting process.
  3. Think broadly about the possible applications. When researchers are trying to solve a specific problem, they don’t always think to apply their solutions to other, unrelated problems. “There are a lot of applications if you step back and think more creatively,” says Jen Rice, director of business development at Harvard’s OTD. “You may need to do a reality check on some of these applications that you brainstorm.”
  4. Focus to identify the right market. Researchers need to be open-minded when it comes to finding the right market, because their first assumptions might not be correct. According to Gordon Nameni, founder and managing director at tech management firm August Brown, “you have to have a technology that works, but you also have to have a market that can accept the technology.”
  5. Study up… It’s important to be familiar with relevant companies, industries and markets. The Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, for example, has several databases where researchers can dig up key players, competitors and other industry-related information.
  6. …and then step away from your desk. Successful commercialization doesn’t just happen on paper. Researchers need to talk to real customers — hundreds of them. This is how to thoroughly understand what the market demands.
  7. Lean on your network. Starting a company is hard, and anyone doing it should learn to reach out for help. Places like OTD help researchers develop and execute a commercialization strategy. Other resources such as entrepreneurs-in-residence and innovation labs are there to help, too.
  8. Communicate the value of your ideas. Researchers are more used to explaining the technical aspects of their innovations rather than their commercial potential. During the boot camp, participants shared their elevator pitches with a panel of experts for live feedback. “You want to talk about what the opportunity is,” says Grant Zimmermann, a director of business development at OTD. “You want to be as respectful as you can of people’s time. Start with the conclusion, say that first, and then get them to read why that’s true.”
  9. Build the right entrepreneurial team. Positive team dynamics are crucial to the survival of a start-up. Because they are smaller, start-ups can become very toxic environments when the wrong people are involved. John Lee, principal at Osage University Partners, says that CEOs receive most of the scrutiny when a start-up pitches to investors. A great CEO, according to Lee, will have the vision and drive to lead, be realistic and modest, have the ability to motivate others and communicate well, and be competitively ambitious.
  10. Take inspiration back to your own research. For inspiration, researchers should keep in mind the greater goal of technology commercialization. “Always connect to why we are doing this,” says Isaac Kohlberg, chief technology development officer and senior associate provost at Harvard. “Without this innovation from bench to business, we do not believe that research will really have the maximal impact that it could have, and should have, on society. Without these partnerships, technologies may stay on the shelf.”

Source: Harvard Office of Technology Development

From the publishers of Technology Transfer Tactics comes University-Industry Engagement Advisor, a monthly publication filled with how-to guidance and best practices for building strategic corporate partnerships and managing a vibrant industry engagement program. For details, CLICK HERE.

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