Tech Transfer Central

Changing the mindset: Boosting faculty engagement still a challenge for TTOs

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Quick: Name a major department at a university that has been in place for years, and yet many faculty members are not aware that it exists and/or have little idea what it does. If you said “tech transfer office” you’d be dead on, at least in the minds of several experts who participated in a panel at the AUTM 2017 annual meeting entitled, “Changing the Mindset: How To Encourage Faculty to Think About Products and Understand Commercial Needs.”

One of the most common barriers to that goal, said Benjamin Dibling, PhD, executive director of licensing at the Penn Center for Innovation, is awareness, “particularly at larger institutions.” He still meets people, he added, who are unaware of what his office does.

Other barriers, he continued, are ease (or lack thereof) of working with the TTO, and the time commitment associated with commercialization for busy faculty.

“We try to make things easier and add education to [the process],” noted Satish Rao, associate director of physical sciences at Columbia Technology Ventures.

In order to “make things easier,” more than one panelist indicated, their TTOs had introduced online disclosure forms.

And Brian Shedd, PhD, assistant director in the Office of Innovation & Technology Commercialization at LSU, chose to view lack of awareness in relative terms. “A faculty member not knowing about us is better than them having a horrible experience — and I’ve had that too,” he noted.

Being transparent and accessible

The commercialization journey — not to mention the awareness journey — with faculty “can be a hard sell,” Shedd conceded. To make things smoother, he said, “I am very transparent; I like to go meet faculty face to face. I call department chairs to talk to their faculty, and I talk to the labs. A lot of it is going out and meeting people.”

The next step, he continued, “is to deliver some value.” He has to put his salesman’s hat on, he explained, and be very up front about the expectations and requirements of the commercialization effort. “I tell them I do not run a day care; they cannot just drop off a disclosure and then pick up a check,” said Shedd. “This is a journey we take together; I set expectations up front and tell them this is not for everybody, but if they are interested in commercialization I can help. That’s where we start, because often they’ve not really been exposed to tech transfer.”

He makes a special effort with the engineering department, which generates half the university’s disclosures. “They’ve got a brand new building opening up,” noted Shedd. “They have a new Dean; I went to her and said, ‘This is what we’ll do for them,’ referencing a Powerpoint he’d created titled “Engineering Innovation” that spelled out all the activity the department could benefit from. “She loved it, because we reinforced that we are here to serve the faculty.” (See Figure 1)

To enhance accessibility and to demonstrate the TTO’s commitment, he has an office in the engineering building and is there two days a week. “The faculty love it; they can find me,” said Shedd. “It’s a great branding effort.”

At Columbia, “I spend a lot of time going to department meetings,” added Rao. “I show up literally for five minutes to speak about CTV. I tell stories — we love to talk about recent licenses — and I intentionally put up [successes from] the same department.”

During those meetings, he continued, he stresses that his department is more than just an office. “For example, every hour they put in is multiplied by us so much.”

Post-Doc Lunch & Learns, he added, are another effective outreach effort. “They are also looking at careers, so this is the right time to reach out and talk about commercialization,” said Rao. “They go back and talk to their PIs, and disclosures increase.”

At UCLA, added Emily Loughran, MBA, senior director of licensing & strategic alliances, patent counsel comes in to talk with faculty on a monthly basis. “They walk through existing patent filings or disclosures; it’s helpful to walk through them,” she says. “If they hear from patent counsel it’s much more believable to them, and it’s been extremely effective.”

Easing the process

Shedd emphasized how important it is to make the process smoother for faculty members. “When I got to LSU the disclosure process was crazy,” he recalled. “They prepared the disclosure document, which required a wet signature and needed witnesses; can we make it any more difficult?”

Since disclosure is “the first contact” and such a critical initial step, he continued, there has to be a lower bar. So, he created an online, interactive form, which offers additional questions based on initial responses. “It takes minutes, and you just click ‘Submit’ at the bottom,” said Shedd. “There’s also a little drop box plug-in if you want to submit papers.”

The system also features an automated follow-up process that includes assignments and uses smart PDFs. The inventor, for example, receives notification from the case manager and gets their disclosure back. The database also encourages case managers to follow up regularly. “The barrier to engagement is over,” Shedd said, an assertion confirmed by polling his office conducted showing that faculty who use the new process like it. And why not? “A couple of clicks and you’re done,” he noted.

UCLA also has an online disclosure form, said Loughran. “With our portal you can check on the status of the disclosure,” she pointed out.

Events and programs

Special events and programs have also proven to be successful in helping engage faculty in the commercialization process. At UCSF, for example, the Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Catalyst Program, which occurs in three cycles every year, was originally based solely on funding by NIH, but now has expanded to include partnerships with companies like Quest and MedImmune. “The faculty put out proposals, which are reviewed by a panel that includes people from UCSF Catalyst, our office, and industry advisors who have signed CDAs with us so we can talk openly,” explained Sunita Rajdev, PhD, UCSF’s associate director of technology licensing. The awards, said Rajdev, can be as high as $250,000 with larger companies.

From a faculty engagement perspective, LSU’s annual Showcase “is great,” said Shedd about the program that recognizes significant commercialization activity, start-up companies, licensing, and so on. “You bring them on stage, stroke their egos, they get an award, and plaques.” Also included is recognition of National Academy of Inventors memberships (there is at least one a year at LSU). “The President of the system is among those handing out the awards; this highest level of recognition is very important,” Shedd observed.

The LSU I-Corps Sites program has also had a big impact on faculty, he added, providing teams with thorough market and commercialization evaluations associated with specific LSU developed technologies. “We had 20 teams last year,” Shedd reported. “We find the team mentors from the business community; there is also good engagement from alumni. It’s a six-week program, with three to five customer interviews a week, followed by team presentations.” Shedd has a teaching team himself, along with the other assistant director, the director, and two individuals from local incubator consultants. “Faculty are eating it up,” he declared.

“Our deals are turning more to start-ups,” noted Rao, “so to motivate them, we are teaching entrepreneurship.” Across four such programs (medical device, therapeutics, clean tech, media), he said, “the PI participation in boot camps came as a surprise.” He added that those participants had led to some of the most successful teams. “We had a 20-year professor who came every week,” he recalled. “Then he gave a pitch, and crushed it because the training had gone so well in boot camp.” Eight months later, Rao reported, he closed a deal, and now uses his story to discuss with other faculty. “The educational perspective is very important,” Rao summarized, “and a motivating factor for commercialization.”

“I’m increasingly proud of our executive programs,” he continued. “We have had EIRs, as many universities do, but we’ve expanded to an advisors network (EIR alumni) and an academic venture exchange, plus others. The tech input has been very important for us.”

In working with VCs, he continued, it’s also important that PIs get that feedback. “It helps the ones who get positive feedback and motivates them to work harder with us,” Rao explained. “Even if they do not get money, the feedback is important.”

Finally, he said, since space is at a premium in New York City, the university tries to find it — particularly for software companies. For example, Columbia provides co-working space in SoHo.

At UCLA, “we put on a variety of events aimed at bringing faculty together with investors and industry on campus,” said Loughran. These include First Look LA (an annual showcase highlighting innovations from numerous institutions) and a medical devices partnering conference, now in its fifth year and “getting bigger every year,” she noted.

The TTO also hosts a monthly mixer called “First Fridays,” where local investors and entrepreneurs come in to discuss topics like I-Corps, SBIR or NSF grants, and how to pitch to venture capital firms.

Aiding faculty start-ups

With more and more commercialization activity in the start-up arena, that’s another prime opportunity for faculty outreach and support from TTOs, the panelists agreed. “We see more and more companies that want to license more mature technologies, and the only way to get out to the market was to help faculty get support of investors and build start-ups,” noted Loughran, pointing out one of the reasons the university has also established several means of boosting new companies. “The other was that an increasing number of faculty were coming to us wanting to do start-ups.”

One program at UCLA, its Startup in a Box initiative, has been very helpful for faculty entrepreneurs, she said, giving them access to outside counsel at fixed fees as well as banking services, insurance, and other services required by fledgling companies.

In addition, said Loughran, UCLA launched a POC fund. “We ask our licensing officers to identify candidates for small amounts of money that can help them get to the value deflection point,” she noted. “We pair them with an EIR, and they present before an advisory panel.”

She noted that the technologies could turn into a licensing play rather than a start-up. “We are agnostic; we just want it to be launched,” she explained.

UCSF has several programs for both financing and partnership, through specific entities dedicated to different paths to commercialization. Its Center for Digital Health Innovation (CDHI) has established a number of partnerships with companies, notably a collaboration with GE around creating deep learning algorithms that help clinicians improve patient management. UCSF also seeks partners beyond industry – non-profit collaborative programs with other universities and state economic development agencies.

“All of us work together and can be a point of contact for faculty,” explains Rajdev. “We try to build a cohesive structure so one unit can direct to the other. If a new invention comes to us that we think has potential, if we might need feedback from industry we use CTSI or CDHI, or if it’s a startup, QB3,” which includes the Startup in a Box program.

Do all these programs really have an impact? Shedd is convinced they do. “We’re in a new office, and we’re firing on all cylinders,” he declared. “The faculty members have been very receptive; the appetite and engagement is there. It is possible to change the mindset.”

Contact Loughran at 310-794-0558 or; Rajdev at 415-340-2476 or; Rao at; and Shedd at

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