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Ongoing expert advisory panels: Insights from the field

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

Keeping expert advisory panels effective and relevant long-term can be difficult, but some TTOs are making it work. The following case studies offer insights into the mechanics of how TTOs are routinely leveraging the knowledge of volunteers from the business and entrepreneurial communities:

Case study #1:
University of Utah

Technology and Venture Commercialization (TVC) at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City uses expert advisory panels called External Engine Committees as a core component of its intellectual property (IP) vetting process. The technology transfer office holds an External Engine Committee meeting every eight weeks, bringing together 40 to 60 sector insiders, entrepreneurs, and investors.

“To achieve that turnout, we make invitations to probably 100 people,” notes Bryan K. Ritchie, TVC’s executive director and associate vice president for research commercialization. TVC uses these meetings “to assess technologies that we think are at a critical decision point,” says Ritchie. “We’re looking for input on a specific ask.”

For example, inventors might tell TVC that they need a prototype at a cost of $15,000 to continue to develop a technology. “So we take that question to the committee: Should we spend the $15,000 on the prototype?” he explains. “Our staff makes a succinct presentation to explain what’s been done and what question we’re trying to answer. Then we look for their feedback on whether we are doing this the right way or we should be thinking about this differently.”

The committee meetings occur on Thursdays and Fridays, from 9 a.m. to noon each day. “On one day we do health sciences (i.e., medical devices and pharmaceuticals), and the next day we do engineering, software, IT, and energy,” says Ritchie.

TVC has presented as many as nine technologies per session. “However, we found that that is too many, so we usually present four to eight technologies,” he says.

 The office has made a concerted effort to avoid “free-flowing, informal interactions,” says Ritchie. “I don’t think anyone — our office or the committee members — really likes that.” Instead, the TTO obtains written, formal input from committee members. “It is very much a documented, tracked interaction,” says Ritchie. “We give them a form with short fill-in-the-blank questions. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill out each form, and we do one for each technology. Participants can write as much or as little as they like. So we try to balance our needs with their desires. Some people give us a lot, and some people don’t give as much. But they all seem to feel engaged by the process.” (Click here for sample form.)

The week following the committee meetings, TVC holds an internal meeting where staff work with faculty experts “to make milestone funding decisions based on the Engine Committee’s inputs,” says Ritchie.

That committee “has increased our credibility as we make hard decisions back to the faculty,” adds Ritchie. “Our big focus now is how we move these technologies forward, and it requires that we close a lot of them. It is much easier for us to go back to a faculty member and say, ‘We vetted this in front of 60 people, and this is their response,’ than it is for us to sound like we’re making the decision to close on our own.”

Case study #2:
Virginia Commonwealth University

The TTO at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond has operated an expert advisory panel called the Commercialization Advisory Panel since May 2012. “The panel currently includes 18 industry experts, angel investors, venture capitalists, and serial entrepreneurs from the Richmond business and investment community,” says Ivelina Metcheva, PhD, MBA, CLP, executive director of technology transfer.

The primary purpose of the advisory panel is to “listen to our presentations and advise us: Are we on the right path for commercialization?” says Metcheva. “We use the panel as a sounding board, but we also ask them to help us with specific projects. For example, if they have connections in an industry segment we are targeting, they can help with introductions and the marketing of our inventions. We also use them in terms of their networks to look for suitable entrepreneurs to start new ventures around VCU technologies.”

The advisory panel also serves as a bridge between local businesses and VCU. “A few years back, VCU was an isolated university. Companies in the business and investment community really didn’t know what kind of research was being performed at VCU,” Metcheva recalls. “The panel is one of the avenues of communication we’ve established to correct that.”

Another benefit is that the panel presentations serve as training for faculty, she adds. “Most of the faculty haven’t presented to a business audience before. It’s a new experience for them to hear the questions that the panel asks. Several faculty members built on their experience presenting to the panel to do similar presentations for a statewide proof-of-concept funding competition. They did very well — to a large extent due to the experience they had with our panel. It was almost like a rehearsal for the competition.”

The panel meets quarterly to provide feedback about patenting and commercialization issues for VCU technologies. While expert advisory panels often suffer from an inability to sustain attendance, “so far we have had 95% to 99% percent of the people present at each meeting,” notes Metcheva.

Although VCU faculty present their technologies to the panel, the TTO provides inventors with a template to develop their presentations. “Most faculty members are more comfortable doing scientific presentations than business pitches. So the template helps them structure their presentations to move beyond the technical side and focus on the type of information that investors want to know,” Metcheva observes.

VCU tries to make the meetings “as short as possible, at a time that is convenient for most of the panelists,” she says. “However, to be able to have a meaningful number of inventions presented, the meeting typically lasts about five hours, a full morning or a full afternoon. The panel hears six to eight presentations. Each presentation lasts 10 to 15 minutes and is followed by a question-and-answer session of an additional 10 to 15 minutes.”

VCU also provides a five- to 10-minute break after every presentation so panelists can move around the room and network. “They come not only to listen to university presentations, but also to interact with each other — communicate with investors and people from different industry sectors,” says Metcheva. “They need to enjoy it. Otherwise, we would lose them.”

Editor’s note: Contact Ritchie at 801-581-4701 or bkritchie@tco.utah.edu; contact Metcheva at 804-828-5188 or ismetche@vcu.edu.


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