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Search for improvement leads to revamp of Duke’s innovation activities

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: July 21st, 2021

A detailed article on Duke University’s self-assessment and reorganization, including specifics behind the five key steps recommended for improvement, appears in the July issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe access the complete article, or for further subscription details, click here

Sometimes when university TTOs decide to engage in self-examination, they are pleasantly surprised to find that things aren’t as bad as they may have thought. Such was the case at Duke University, where the university’s Board of Trustees initiated a study to examine the university’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Despite the generally positive view, however, a consensus emerged that there remained a vast amount of unmet potential, and Duke’s just-completed reorganization reflects a public commitment to succeed in the innovation and entrepreneurship arena at the highest level. That commitment runs through all university levels, from the Board of Trustees and president to senior officers and deans, and is detailed in a well-thought-out and well-coordinated vision of supporting the university’s faculty in innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Where in the past the university supported faculty discoveries and inventions in a fragmented, loosely coordinated manner, they are now bringing higher quality control coordination and more robustness to those support mechanisms,” says R. Sanders “Sandy” Williams, interim vice president for research and innovation. The university will also be more purposely pursuing corporate partnerships as part of the reorg.

The restructuring plan was two years in the making, starting when the Board of Trustees initiated what they dubbed the Research Translation and Commercialization (RTC) initiative and created a working group.

Now that working group has released a report about the outcomes of the RTC initiative. “The report called for outreach in ways that had not been done with a similar intensity before,” Williams reports. “And that’s what we’ve embarked on now. It was almost a year in study and a year in the planning. And now [as of June 2021], we’re in our first month of implementation.”

The reorganization plan was informed by a number of early initiatives. First, the Board of Trustees, led by Duke President Vincent E. Price, spent a year interviewing people and collecting data. They reviewed how Duke’s Office of Licensing and Ventures operates and dug into the details of the school’s innovation and entrepreneurship activity. That included a day tour of BioLabs North Carolina, a membership-based network of shared lab and office facilities in Durham. They also talked to other university chancellors to gain more understanding of the area’s research environment.

They visited companies in the region and RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute in Research Triangle Park. They also hosted and picked the brains of Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures and Vice President of intellectual property and tech transfer at Columbia University, and Christy Wyskiel, senior advisor to the president for innovation & entrepreneurship and executive director at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, who described a variety of innovation initiatives at their campuses. In all, the Board produced over 600 pages of analysis of Duke’s activity.

“They came away a year ago with the conclusion that although we were better than people realized, we can and should do more,” says Williams.

In June 2020, after a few months’ lull in the project following the shutdown of the university due to the pandemic, President Price asked Williams to lead a group to plan how Duke could respond to the Board’s report. Williams formed the RTC working group with co-chairs Lawrence “Larry” Carin, then vice president for research, and Robin L. Rasor, associate vice president for translation and commercialization. George Truskey, associate vice president for research, joined the effort midstream, and Marnie Rhoads, the chief of staff in Williams’ office, served as program manager.

This small group spent about eight months reviewing the report and its data, and ultimately recommended five key action steps.

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