Tech Transfer Central

For Northwestern TTO, blockbuster drug is a double edged sword

This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Intellectual Property Marketing Advisor. This publication has now merged with Technology Transfer Tactics monthly newsletter. Click here to subscribe and gain access to all past articles.

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Every TTO would love to have a blockbuster drug like Lyrica, the pain reliever for patients suffering from neuropathic pain developed by researchers at Northwestern University. Northwestern’s agreement with Pfizer yielded over $800 million for a portion of the royalty stream in 2008, about $160 million in 2009, and $180 million in 2010. From a marketing perspective, such a “home run” can be used effectively to inspire other inventors — and Northwestern is doing just that.

On the other hand, TTOs like Northwestern’s also must take care to avoid complacency and clarify the record when it comes to marketing communications and metrics, both inside and outside the university. For example, Northwestern was ranked number one in licensing income in the 2009 AUTM survey. “Lyrica is our only license that produced more than $1 million,” notes Alicia Loffler, PhD, associate vice president and executive director in the Innovation and New Venture Office. “But that’s not unusual in these situations. Stanford, for example, only has three licenses that produce more than $1 million.”

When Loffler reviews her team’s overall performance, she “backs out” the Lyrica figures. “The university takes them out, too [when reviewing performance], because it is so huge,” Loffler shares. “But we do need to make sure we use this to create a culture of innovation.”

Leveraging success

Leveraging the success of Lyrica is just one part of creating this culture — but it’s a big one. “Lyrica has provided us with an inflection point to catalyze change at Northwestern,” says Loffler. “What helps us is the realization that while we all know invention is serendipitous, innovation shouldn’t be. If we want to maximize the chances of this happening again we need to create a culture to promote these types of activities.”

Loffler continues: “Having role models helps a lot, although we don’t want to raise expectations unrealistically. The best way to learn is to look at your colleague and do what they do.” The inventor of Lyrica, Rick Silverman, is a chemistry professor who still teaches and works with student researchers, notes Loffler.

“He has even donated a building to Northwestern,” she adds. “This has helped colleagues in his school become much more innovative — and his department is the highest producer of disclosures. They see him, and he is an inspiration; they learn to do it the way he did. He shows them how to think about problems in a way that the solutions can be applied to society.”

Silverman frequently makes presentations on campus — at the business school and at other venues, Loffler continues. “I don’t need to tell him to do it,” she says. “Everyone asks him to speak, and he’s very open — he tells his story.”

It’s important, Loffler adds, to keep the Lyrica success story in perspective, given what an indelible impression it has made on the faculty researchers. “I think we all have it ingrained in our DNA because we are all so very proud and so grateful; it has allowed the university a lot of flexibility with these revenues — particularly during an economic crisis,” she explains. But part of the downside, she adds, is that “most of the people I talk with about their new potential products say ‘This could be another Lyrica.’ Sometimes I have to calm them down.”

Still, she emphasizes, “we need those role models.” There are other star innovators on campus besides Silverman, she notes, adding that “we have to celebrate their successes and make them very visible to everyone inside and outside the university. We make them heroes — with a lot of articles, promotions and pitches — and we try to make their lives easier.”

In terms of the outside world, Loffler says, “we mention Lyrica, but not in a structured way. It’s part of the conversation, but we do not have brochures that say ‘We have Lyrica.'”

Restructuring the ‘machine’

One danger for TTOs with a blockbuster success story is a tendency to sit on one’s laurels — and for some, when the big royalty checks stop coming in there isn’t much to replace that revenue. The nosedive in reported results can be a shocker for the university and particularly for stakeholders like state officials and university administrators. The TTO appears to have dropped off a cliff in its performance, so preparing for that day is a key challenge.

Northwestern, for one, is not standing pat. During the past year, says Loffler, “we have started to restructure the innovation machine. We have a lot of new entrepreneurial faculty coming, and we want to be known as a place to do innovation.”

The students, she continues, are key. “I call them the agents of change; they walk the halls and inspire faculty,” she says. MBA students, Loffler notes, are heavily involved in market analysis. The school of management’s “Innovation to Commercialization” program puts teams of students to work with faculty members to develop market analyses on potential inventions, as well as mini-business plans. The program involves about 30 students per quarter, with each of several teams taking a project for that quarter. “Faculty members learn how to think about ways to move technology to market; they actually learn from the students,” Loffler asserts.

In November, Northwestern and the other two major universities in Chicago launched ‘Chicago Innovation Mentors’ to provide assistance and expertise for faculty looking to commercialize their discoveries. (See article in the February 2011 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics.) “We have great alumni experienced in taking products to market,” notes Loffler. “We tap into that pool to find mentors for our faculty.” Two faculty members are already being mentored by a team of alumni, she reports.

A third program involves commercialization clinics. “Once a quarter outside experts come in and sit in a campus meeting room for a full day, and visit with faculty who come in with questions,” she explains.

With the Lyrica patent expiring in October 2013, anticipating and getting ahead of the reaction — using outreach to manage expectations — and accelerating development of new technologies represent a two-pronged strategy for any TTO heading toward the end of the blockbuster gravy train.

Contact Loffler at 847-491-4647 or

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