Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Hopkins TTO encourages fast fails with “5 Vs” system of tech assessment


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: February 1st, 2023

A detailed article on Johns Hopkins’ “5Vs” system for assessing its large portfolio of inventions and “failing fast” on many so they can focus on the most promising IP assets appears in the January issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the complete article, or for further subscription details, click here.

You’re driving a van full of your colleagues down the highway and take what you think is the right exit. But soon, your passengers provide feedback that the landscape is all wrong. You’ve made an error and taken a wrong turn. Do you continue down that road or turn back to find the right exit? Of course, you turn back as quickly as possible. A quick U-turn is an example of a “fast fail.”

The “fast fail” approach also works with innovation and ultimately speeds up the process, while allowing more promising commercialization projects to get the attention they need.

Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, the university’s division responsible for technology transfer, receives nearly 500 disclosures each year from across the university’s nine schools, and that means not every one of them will receive TTO time and resources. The office’s three technology development directors, who are primarily tech scouts, have devised a five-step framework for prioritizing such a large portfolio. The team guides technologies along a variety of routes and aims to quickly determine whether to continue nurturing any given innovation or make that U-turn to shelve an asset so they can focus on other more promising inventions.

The 500 disclosures are not necessarily enough to satisfy the technology development directors, who want as many as they can get to sift through to find the real gems. Knowing that many inventions will fail and fail fast under their triage system, they reason, they need a large pool of candidates. They also have no guarantees that the 500 disclosures include the most promising inventions at the institution, since some may be lurking undisclosed in labs across campus. They want to leave no stone unturned. Thus, proactively reaching out to the faculty and increasing awareness of their services is critical.

“Awareness is our biggest challenge,” says Christina DeMur, director and team lead for technology development. “We have a lot of people, especially in these newer buckets of technologies like software or AI, who may not know about Tech Ventures or who may not know about our team as being a resource and potential help to them. So, we count on a lot of referrals.”

Once they have identified a prospect for commercialization, JHTV regularly connects with the inventor. “When we find a researcher working on something that we think has commercial value, we bring to bear what we sometimes jokingly refer to as a warm, furry blanket,” said DeMur. “We engage with that faculty early and often,” letting the investigator know they are interested and think their idea has merit and potential commercial value.

The team goes into the nitty gritty with the inventors during one-on-one conversations. They discuss such issues as the regulatory barriers and other challenges likely to be faced as an innovation is nurtured. They also arrange introductions and talks with consultants to help them figure out how to develop, scale, fund, and even price their solution.

“We obviously can’t commit too much time to every invention or idea, even though the scientific caliber of the portfolio is remarkable across the board,” DeMur notes. “We have to be discerning about what projects will get a lot of special attention, meaning time with us, and we’re holding the researchers accountable for making progress.”

The team must narrow the 500 or more inventions to a manageable number. Out of 10 innovations, only one might ultimately be the gem they are looking for. “We have to allow ourselves to fail fast,” DeMur stresses. “The faculty member might have a great research project or article, but it may not have a commercial impact and may not be a starter. We want it to fail out sooner rather than later.”

JHTV has developed a system for helping to separate the inventions that will fail fast from the ones they want to stay with and nurture. Their approach is called the Five Vs, which is shorthand for validation, viability, vector, velocity, and victory. And a key is rapid feedback from inventors, subject matter experts, investors, and others who can weigh in on a technology’s commercial potential.

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