Biopharm America 2010, Day 3: Giving tech transfer a seat at the table

Arm Wrestling

First let me start out by saying that we are no longer ‘Tech Transfer.’ According to Children’s Hospital Boston’s Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) Director, Erik Halvorsen who was a panelist at an event called  “From Idea to Company: Fundamental Building Blocks,” at the BioPharm America conference, the term ‘Tech Transfer’ is like the band Nirvana, which was popular in the nineties but has since lost its appeal among contemporary music fans. Put another way, the term is a bit outdated. His point was, in the current climate, academic licensing offices must do more than patent and license to accomplish their missions. Our office name reflects the recent change in function, from Intellectual Property Office to TIDO. In addition to our core licensing function, we have a Business Development function the primary goal of which is to reach out to industry and set up collaborations, and our Technology Development Fund invests in promising technologies invented at Children’s Hospital Boston and finds the projects mentors and contract research organization partners to increase the maturity level.

Tech transfer gets a bad rap. Throughout the conference academia was mentioned and usually it was not in a glowing light. Tech transfer offices get the rep of being stingy misers who hold on the technology, overvaluing it and tying unreasonable strings, causing the negotiation to take longer than necessary. Academic founders get a reputation for being diva personalities that refuse to be domesticated to the point where they can help recruit additional investors. Or they might fail to be business savvy enough to reign in their technical ideas to something resembling a product.

But despite the reputation of academics, I felt that at this conference at least academics were able to have a voice. Thanks largely to Imran Nasrullah, Chief Business Officer of MassBio, technology transfer offices and academic founders were represented on panels and given a platform to share our perspective. More often than not some of the horror stories come from a minority of institutions that make a bad name for all involved. Or they come from a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of some of the pressures academic institutions face. For example, laws governing licensing research funded by government sources  are perceived to encumber the types of deal terms we can allow. It’s so important for us to have a public opportunity to address these issues. Also, it is better to have these conversations on panels at a conference where we are about to enjoy a nice dinner together than when industry or venture and academia are trying to sweat out deal terms with the clock ticking.

Our office specifically had our chance at the panel to stick up for ourselves and others in our position. Also, we get to explain some of the new office functions that we have put in place in response to industry’s challenge to have more mature technologies developed with a strategic eye toward the hand off to a potential partner. The more technology transfer (or ahem ‘innovation management’ or ‘technology development’ or ‘strategic translation’ or whatever the next generation term is) gets a seat at the table the more likely we are to understand one another’s modi operandi in a way that allows incentives to be aligned, to create the win-win arrangements that will move the technology forward. At the very least, contentious panels with at least a little bit of affectionate finger-pointing make for a good spectator experience!