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2021 AUTM meeting coverage

Driving diversity and inclusion: Moving from rhetoric to reality

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Many tech transfer programs 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.

EDI at AUTM

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. Her committee is also working “to bring more people to the table and to integrate them, to make them feel welcome, give them a sense of belonging,” says Aanstoos.

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.’”

Promoting EDI on your campus

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 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.

He also offered some practical tips for promoting diversity and inclusion, such as never creating a panel discussion with only white participants and engaging the university communications team to take photos of diverse inventors or students, illustrating that commercialization is for everyone.

He also notes that getting the right mix for true diversity might be tricky. “For diversity of thought, just because you have diversity in the traditional sense and are including different people of color and genders and sexual orientations, it does not necessarily mean you are choosing people who think differently than you do,” he said. “We also need to look at people who have different backgrounds, all those other types [who think] differently than we do, or we wind up in groupthink, and that is just as dangerous and can lead us down a worse path than having [no] diversity.”

Battling implicit bias

Campbell brought up the topic of implicit bias. “One of the things that you can do to get started is to understand what implicit biases you might have,” she advised. She suggests people can learn to recognize implicit bias by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, using the American Bar Association’s Implicit Bias Videos and Toolkit, and reading resources from the AUTM EDI reading list.

Womack discussed how TTOs can initiate engagement in partnerships with HBCUs. He recommended approaching these partnerships in two ways. First, Womack advises TTOs to engage with the HBCU consortium that UNCF has set up for helping HBCUs expand their tech transfer capabilities and activity. Second, he suggested seeking out HBCUs with a particular focus on industry verticals where they could benefit from a partnership. Womack noted that he would be happy to speak with any TTO that would like to pursue his second recommendation.

Overcoming systemwide obstacles

Womack also noted some obstacles that organizations may face when trying to reach out to other institutions to improve EDI and how the UNCF can help.

Helping to establish partnerships is not as simple as it might seem, he said. Identifying HBCUs seeking to improve their commercialization efforts and helping them network with more experienced institutions is not enough to solve the problem. When it comes to building out a commercialization infrastructure, he explains, HBCUs are “trying to run a race with one arm tied behind their back.” They simply do not have sufficient capital to build that infrastructure and capacity for commercialization at their institutions.

Their deal flow is low, and so they are regarded as cost items at their institutions. And it is well-documented that African Americans do not have access to the same level of capital that others might for new ventures.

“If we look at the ecosystem,” said Womack, “HBCUs are not plugged into the innovation ecosystems in places like Silicon Valley and others. All of those [obstacles], in total, basically mean that the HBCU network needs to be connected, needs to be empowered, needs to be resourced in an appropriate way that will allow them to compete.’

He would like to see UNCF play the convener role for a consortia approach to funding TTOs that would be more capital efficient. “The bottom line is this is going to take a village to solve the problem, and it is not just for one organization to [solve]. But I do think UNCF can play a significant role in that.”

A helping hand

Womack also addressed how established TTOs could help historically black colleges and universities to increase their deal flow and manage IP disclosures. “One of the things that we have been discussing with AUTM … is how we might organize that approach and leverage the resources, best practices, and models that are out there,” he said.

The potential for expanded commercialization activity is already being tapped at some HBCUs, he stressed. “I don’t want to present the picture that there is nothing in the HBCU community. There is. Certainly, we have schools like Jackson State, North Carolina [A&T], Morgan State, Prairie View, and others — Tennessee State included — that are doing wonderful things around intellectual property management and even spinning out start-ups,” he said. “We just need to ramp it up.”

Campbell noted that Kentucky is working with all state institutions to promote commercialization, and this effort serves as a model for others. Her institution, Jackson State, is collaborating with the University of Kentucky’s training program for innovators and commercialization, which is open to all HBCUs.

Kentucky’s model is to “bring everybody on board and try to help them,” she explained. “[Participants] may not have a tech transfer office, but there is a place for them to learn.”

Beyond those efforts, added Campbell, “something needs to be developed so that [these HBCUs] can have continuous training,” and additional resources, so tech transfer initiatives can be sustained past the initial training programs.

KCV is definitely moving in that direction, Aanstoos stated. The statewide partnership includes the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, and KY Innovation, which is part of Kentucky’s Cabinet for Economic Development.

“One of the things that is key is making that network connection,” said Aanstoos. “We have networked the University of Kentucky and another university together with two other universities across the state, and by doing that, we offered that opportunity for connections, collaborations, resources, and capital that all these institutions need. Our network includes colleges, HBCUs, and colleges that have socioeconomic needs. As we connect these groups, we will give them an opportunity to drive forward with innovation through a unique collaboration, which comes together from the state level down.”

KCV also offers virtual connections and opportunities to 24 institutions in rural areas. “People across the state come together and learn from each other and make those connections if they need to get ahead,” said Aanstoos. “When you are creating programs like this, the key is to bring your resources together…. We want to not just be at the table, but create a sense of belonging for everyone to feel included, modify the things that are negative, and embrace the things that are positive so that we can get ahead.”

Contact Campbell at almesha.l.campbell@jsums.edu; Aanstoos at maanstoos@kycommercializationventures.com; Womack at chad.womack@uncf.org; and Zanewicz at zanewicz@tulane.edu.


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