Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Amid various stages of reopening across the country, TTOs plan for next steps


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 24th, 2020

A detailed article on planning for a return to on-campus TTO operations appears in the June issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, click here.

When shelter-in-place restrictions and social distancing began across the country in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, university technology transfer offices focused on making sure they could maintain operations remotely. Now that states and universities have begun the staged lifting of prohibitions, the focus for TTOs is on what comes next.

Laurie Actman, chief marketing, communications and program officer for the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) at the University of Pennsylvania, says her organization rapidly switched to remote working more easily than some because it had developed a comprehensive disaster management plan in concert with an annual university-wide effort. This included making sure everyone had the tools — both hardware and software — needed to ensure remote access and training as necessary for using connective online applications.

PCI also took steps to deal with the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic, as well as ensure consistent communication, including:

  • mandatory weekly updates from both the operational and business development perspectives;
  • frequent team meetings and check-ins by managers with their employees;
  • a new series of staff engagement events, some designed to be fun and entertaining, that staff could participate in remotely to support their emotional well being.

Likewise, Keith Marmer, executive director and associate vice president for technology and venture commercialization at the University of Utah, said his organization implemented its business contingency plan within 24 hours after the need to close its physical location became apparent. Coincidentally, the team was already on alert that week.

“Two days before we had to shut down, we had an earthquake centered near Salt Lake City, just a few miles from campus,” he says. “We didn’t realize we’d have two events in the same week, but the plan was a huge advantage. We learned a couple of things [from the first event]. We tweaked a couple of things, but we made the transition [to the COVID shutdown] within 24 hours.”

Since each state had its own pandemic-related rules and guidelines during the last few months, TTOs are encountering different timetables and landscapes for reopening.

Utah implemented a color-coded system — red, orange, yellow, and green — for assessing the risk of restarting normal life and offered flexibility for different regions of the state based on characteristics such as to urban or rural environments.

Marmer says the Center for Technology and Venture Commercialization plans to phase its reopening based on couple of factors. The first is what stage Salt Lake City and Utah are in based on the color-coded system, while the other is “the order of importance of each individual’s role with respect to being on campus.” He notes that “technology transfer functions are operating at 100% remotely, so we anticipate coming back among the last of the university’s employees.”

The office will take into account concerns of staff as well, calling that a highly individual aspect of the decision-making process. “We’ve got some folks who can’t wait to get back because they miss the interaction. We’ve got some folks who are pretty nervous about it. We’re going to maintain flexibility.”

In Oregon, where many businesses and organizations have been allowed to reopen, some restrictions were still in effect earlier this month.

Andrew R.O. Watson, senior director of technology transfer at the Oregon Health & Science University, says his organization is adhering to those restrictions. “Our university is still on what we call modified operations,” he reports. “Under modified operations, all non-essential personnel are to not report to work unless their function is essential, and all of my tech transfer staff is on mandatory telework from home. We have a trial period ongoing right now in opening up a handful of research labs on campus, but most all research labs remain shut down and there is no current date on when they will open.”

In Pennsylvania, most of the state is in some phase of reopening (“yellow” or “green”). Philadelphia, where PCI is located, has entered the yellow phase, making remote operations still a recommended alternative to in-person gatherings.

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