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TTO advisory panels: Best practices to optimize success

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

Whether technology transfer offices opt to incorporate external expert advisory panels into their tech transfer processes or use the panels as a one-time resource, decisions about how to create and run a panel often will be “context-specific,” says Bryan K. Ritchie, executive director of technology and venture commercialization (TVC) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and associate vice president for research commercialization. (For a case study on how TVC has incorporated a panel into its tech transfer process, see this story.) “A TTO’s process will be contingent upon who your participants are, what their experience is, and how they are used to interacting with the university.”

However, all TTO managers can take steps to improve their chances of reaping actionable intelligence from an outside advisory panel. Based on a series of TTT interviews, these steps include the following:

• Consider who you need on the panel. “Every university has its areas of focus. You want your panel to reflect those core competencies,” says Laura Schoppe, MBA, MSE, RTTP, president of the Apex, NC-based intellectual property management and tech transfer consulting firm Fuentek LLC. “So if pharmaceuticals and chemistry, for example, are your two hot areas, you need to recruit panel members in those areas.”

Even within that general breakdown, it’s a good idea for TTOs to tie their recruitment efforts to the university’s strongest research, suggests Schoppe. “For example, if cancer drugs are a big research area within the pharma core competency, you want to find pharma experts who understand cancer research and the cancer market.”

However, “some limited cross-pollination is a good idea,” she says. “For example, if chemistry and pharmaceuticals are two areas of focus, having people with both backgrounds in the same room looking at the same technologies could generate new ways of utilizing an innovation that the inventor never considered and that the tech transfer office didn’t see. The key is to mix and match for optimum benefit.”

In addition to the right expertise, the right attitude counts for a lot, says Ivelina Metcheva, PhD, MBA, CLP, executive director of technology transfer at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. (VCU convenes a panel quarterly — see this story.) “It’s important to get the right people. Panel members donate their time, so they need to be excited about working with the university. They have to feel they can make a real contribution because, for them, this is a service to the university and the community.”

• Think about panel size. Each organization has to decide what size panel will best suit its needs and resources, says Schoppe. The range is broad: TTO managers interviewed by TTT have held panels with anywhere from 12 to 60 experts. “However, my experience has been that 20 is a good number for most panels,” she says. “It allows everyone to be engaged in the conversation without being overwhelming.”

• Pump up the volume on recruitment efforts. When expert advisory panels fail to thrive, often TTOs haven’t made a strong push at recruitment, says Schoppe. “Instead of recruiting 10 people for a panel today, consider establishing a pool of experts, 50 people for example, that you can call on in different mixtures at different times. It’s more upfront work for the TTO, but it offers more flexibility and a stronger fit between the experts and the technologies.”

Pulling together panels from a larger group gives TTOs leeway to identify the best participants as well. “A lot of people we thought were the right people weren’t, and a lot of people we thought might be marginal turned out to be very effective,” says Ritchie. TTOs then can use that knowledge to network within the group, he suggests. “If we push the committee members that we find valuable to bring their friends, we usually find that their friends are valuable too.”

• Target industry. Venture capitalists, angel investors, and entrepreneurs all have the makings of useful panelists. However, industry insiders should be targeted as well. “Company representatives are the hardest ones to attract to meetings, but they often are the most valuable,” says Ritchie. “To get them to come, we have to issue some very specific invitations and reminders. They are still probably our weakest group, but they’re worth the additional effort.”

• Be prepared to nix volunteers. TTOs can find panelists either through networking or a call for volunteers. However, a call for volunteers shouldn’t be an open invitation, says Schoppe. “Any people who volunteer will still need to be screened, and TTOs have to be willing to say no,” she stresses. “That’s hard to do when panel membership is voluntary and recruitment takes so much work. However, if volunteers are not a good match with your technologies or if they have a vested interest in the outcome, they aren’t going to serve the purpose of the panel.”

• Brainstorm alternatives. Universities that are in regions with strong business ecosystems have an easier time putting together an expert advisory panel, admits Schoppe. “If you’re out in the cornfields, so to speak, you are going to have a very hard time finding qualified volunteers who aren’t biased and who aren’t too narrow.” Consequently, universities in remote locations might have to think outside the box, possibly holding a panel in the nearest large city or conducting a panel electronically, she suggests.

• Don’t make nondisclosure agreements a sticking point. In a perfect world, TTOs will have nondisclosure agreements in place to protect their IP rights whenever they use external panels. However, missing NDAs shouldn’t stop TTOs from holding a panel with their experts of choice, suggests Brian Abraham, PhD, executive director of Spartan Innovations, the venture creation arm of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. 

“Venture capitalists aren’t going to sign nondisclosure agreements,” he states. “Clearly, they aren’t out to steal ideas to launch companies with, so TTOs shouldn’t get hung up on something that isn’t mission critical.” NDAs aren’t always an option, agrees Ritchie. “We tried to get people to sign nondisclosure agreements up front, but they wouldn’t do it. If you require nondisclosure agreements, you will get all the wrong people there. You just have to do these meetings in nonconfidential ways. Further, the truth is that the university’s core technologies are not easily replicable. We have never had anyone steal an idea. So I think this is a false fear.”

• Set expectations ‘up front.’ TTOs that seek to foster actual deal-making from an expert advisory panel are doomed to disappointment, says Jennifer Murphy, retired director of technology transfer at George Mason University and senior advisor at Herndon, VA-based InnovateTech Ventures. Murphy was involved with two standing panels during her tenure at George Mason.

“Panels aren’t useful for getting technologies licensed,” she points out. “But they are useful for looking at market possibilities. Gathering industry experts in a room can bring to light new avenues in terms of potential directions for a technology.”

In fact, TTOs would do well to avoid giving experts the false expectation that they’ll be attending a pitch event, suggests Ritchie. “Early on, we received negative feedback because we just said, ‘Come look at our technologies,’” he explains. “People thought we were trying to do a pitch event with technologies that weren’t pitch-ready and that we were wasting their time.”

TVC changed tactics, setting the expectation “up front that this was not an investment meeting,” says Ritchie. “I was not pitching technologies to them for investment. I was showing them what we were doing, looking for their feedback and their direction. I wanted their advice on how to go forward. If people believe it’s an investment meeting, they’re going to become frustrated very quickly and quit coming because these technologies are not ready to invest in yet. That was a big piece of learning for us.”

• Design your approach. TTOs need to take “a very structured approach” to an expert advisory panel, says Abraham. “Documenting up front the process and the protocol that you are going to use is very important. That way, when people get here to do the work, there isn’t much ambiguity around the approach or the desired outcomes.”

“You have to be really well-organized,” agrees Ritchie. “These people want to give their feedback, and if you make it easy for them to tell you what they think, they enjoy it and will come back. If they feel like you are wasting their time and you aren’t prepared to ask them specific questions, they won’t come back.”

• Balance workload for long-term panels. “If you only ask a long-term panel to look at a few technologies a year, you’ve got a much better chance that you can keep them engaged,” says Schoppe. “However, if you ask the panel to look at your entire portfolio and not all of the technologies are a good match for the panel members, you will burn them out. You have to balance how much you ask of panel members in order to try to keep them longer.”

• Prepare for each meeting. TVC’s first few meetings quickly demonstrated that “we needed to do our homework before we got there,” says Ritchie. “A number of times, we felt like the participants were saying, ‘You should have done this. Why didn’t you do this?’ And we didn’t have a good answer. So now we try to be smart before we bring technologies to the committee.”

For example, TVC has created a peer review committee. “We put technologies in front of other faculty members and get their technological review before we go before the External Engine Committee [i.e., the expert advisory panel],” says Ritchie. “This allows us to speak intelligently to the technology in terms of what is state of the art, and what peers think about each other’s technology disclosures.”

• Take charge of the meeting. Gathering a group of experts requires TTOs to “manage the room,” says Ritchie. “We do this classroom style. We call on people. We limit the amount of time they can speak if they are not adding value. It has to be actively managed. Otherwise, you will get people who will hijack the whole meeting.” Rather than have TTO staff lead the meeting, another option worth considering is hiring a facilitator, adds Abraham. “But no matter what, you need someone to keep things on track.”

• Watch the paperwork. Asking volunteers “to write up a lot of information or do a lot of homework is an easy way to lose them because they don’t have that kind of time,” says Schoppe. “They are more likely to see requests for verbal information as nontaxing. However, the TTO has to be ready to take really good notes and to do some follow-up afterward too.”

A good compromise is to provide panelists with a one-page form that allows them to rate technologies (e.g., high, medium, or low viability) and gives them space to write in specific contacts or other information they consider useful, says Schoppe. (Click here.)

“That will alleviate some of the burden on the TTO in capturing data but not be so much documentation that it is too much for the volunteer,” she says. “It also gives you something concrete to take back to the inventors and show them that their innovation has been seriously reviewed by experts in the field. In some cases, you might even be able to provide inventors with feedback on what’s needed to generate market interest.”

• Give panelists feedback. “It is important to give feedback to the panel if there’s any development as a result of their suggestions,” says Metcheva. “For example, if a technology that we presented to the panel comes to fruition in terms of sponsored research or licensing, we will share that news with the panelists.”

Providing some type of “electronic sharing tool that allows panel members to continue to express ideas after the meeting” also could benefit TTOs, says Murphy. “Not only could you gain additional insights, but it would help keep people engaged in the meetings.”

Editor’s note: Contact Ritchie at 801-581-4701 or bkritchie@tco.utah.edu; Schoppe at 919-249-0327 or laschoppe@fuentek.com; Abraham at 517-884-4543 or babraham@spartaninnovations.org; Metcheva at 804-828-5188 or ismetche@vcu.edu; and Murphy at jenniferomurphy@gmail.com.


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