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Driving diversity and inclusion in tech transfer: Moving from rhetoric to reality

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: April 27th, 2021

A detailed article on strategies for building diversity in university research commercialization efforts appears in the April issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, click here. 

Many tech transfer programs want to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in their commercialization activity but may be at a loss as to what strategies or programs will best help them achieve this goal. The Driving Diversity and Inclusion for a More Successful Innovation Strategy session at the AUTM 2021 Annual Meeting provided some answers. Panelists shared specific tips for overcoming roadblocks and turning the desire for EDI into reality.

Almesha L. Campbell, PhD, assistant vice president for research and economic development at Jackson State University, moderated the session. Panelists included Megan Aanstoos, licensing & new ventures manager at Kentucky Commercialization Ventures (KCV) and chair of AUTM’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee; Chad Womack, PhD, senior director of STEM programs and initiatives, United Negro College Fund (UNCF); and James Zanewicz, the chief business officer in the Office of Research Business Development at Tulane University.

As AUTM’s EDI chair, Aanstoos has focused on bringing awareness to the issues. She notes that AUTM has a diversity and inclusion statement on their website and a reading list for members to educate themselves. AUTM also has fortified its mentorship program for people interested in becoming a Board of Directors member.

Commenting on how AUTM itself can move from “rhetoric to reality,” Womack proposed three categories of actions the organization could take:

1) hear and incorporate diverse voices into policy and practice;

2) Ensure that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions are part of the association’s leadership, including board representation;

3) Focus on capital requirements that help fuel the needed solutions to build more equitable representation.

“AUTM can be part of the solution by helping our institutions identify best practices that will help them get access capital, policies, and procedures that will help them build more robust [representation],” he said.

Aanstoos also talked about how AUTM’s Women Inventors Special Interest Group is collecting data about female innovators on campus. Their survey of TTOs includes a question about how many males and females engage with their offices. The SIG also considers ways in which TTOs can enrich their data by working with their human resources division to look at race and ethnicity or socioeconomic and veteran status.

“If you want to grow an office to be more diverse and you want to engage with a larger portion of innovators, you have to know where you are starting from, then you have to know if you moved the needle,” says Aanstoos. “As you think about what you can do in your own offices, the first thing that you can do is start measuring and start keeping track so that you can go out and say, ‘we need to change these numbers,’ or ‘we are happy with these numbers.’”

The panelists also had plenty to say about how TTOs can promote equality and inclusion in their own commercialization activity.

In fact, TTOs are in an excellent position to better engage underrepresented inventors and students, noted Zanewicz. “The data shows that those are the people less likely to step forward and say, ‘I need help’ or ‘I want to learn more,’” he observed. “By actively reaching out and engaging with those folks, we can do a lot to show people that they are able to be engaged in the activities we are in, whether it is from the scientific side or from people who might become future leaders in our profession.”

Regarding how TTOs can attract minority-owned businesses for licensing or tech transfer collaborations, Zanewicz recommends partnering and gaining trust with those in your community who can connect you with minority-owned businesses. “We may not have the trust of our diverse-owned businesses in the communities to help support and serve, especially medical centers,” he said.

To help bridge that gap, his TTO at Tulane connected with a minority-owned public relations firm. “[That connection] has been amazing because we are able to connect with faith leaders and community leaders [through] someone trusted and who can guide us on who the effective messengers are, who are often not the people running the projects. Reach out and spend that little bit of money to become more effective as a true member of your community,” he urged.

At Tulane, noted Zanewicz, the TTO actively works to increase the diversity of faculty submitting invention disclosures. They make a special effort to meet not only with the “typical investigators who have always been the more senior investigators [and] who are often less diverse just because of historical reasons.” Clay Christian, a business development associate in Zanewicz’s office, meets with grad students, fellows, and postdocs. “Clay uses that opportunity to try and [find a] diversity of thought and initiatives, where we are getting collaborative opportunities, which often leads to invention disclosures,” said Zanewicz.

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