Editor Thierry Heles reports from Autm’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas

Autm, the non-profit association that represents technology transfer leaders globally, this year held its annual meeting from February 10 to 13, welcoming more than 2,000 delegates to this year’s chosen location of Austin, Texas.

The event, the largest of its kind in the world and the biggest for Autm in a decade, brought together everyone from locals at University of Texas Austin to attendees from as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand.

Alison Campbell, who had been the chairwoman of Autm for the 2018 to 2019 period but would hand the gavel to Richard Chylla to take over for the next 12 months following the conference, opened the annual meeting by telling the audience about one of her friends who had been diagnosed with cancer but who had benefited from a treatment Campbell had helped bring to market.

“Nothing beats the outcome of the long-term work you have been involved in, but you do not always get to see that,” Campbell noted. With Autm now counting more than 3,000 members in 61 countries – and 400 international delegates at the event – there would, however, be more of these stories among the audience.

Stephen Susalka, chief executive of Autm, took the stage to invite the audience to share their success stories for the Better World project, a database of more than 500 university technologies that have had a profound impact on humanity and that was being used to demonstrate to politicians that what tech transfer offices were doing was worthwhile.

“We are a war and peace profession in a bumpersticker world,” Susalka noted, adding that technology transfer was facing a raft of challenges, such as weakening patent rights, but that Autm was doing everything in its power to fight these.

Campbell awarded the Bayh-Dole Award to Carl Gulbrandsen, who had been managing director of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the commercialisation arm of University of Wisconsin Madison until 2016, and over the course of two decades had helped lead the office to internationally renowned successes.

In his acceptance speech, Gulbrandsen celebrated how the Bayh-Dole Act, which mandates US universities commercialise federally funded research, had in large part been responsible for turning Autm into the organisation it was today. He called on everyone in the audience to defend the act in the US and encouraged international delegates to keep supporting Autm.

Campbell and Susalka also presented the Autm Chair’s Award to David Gulley, a member for nearly 20 years and founding director of the technology transfer office for the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust. They also presented the Volunteer Services Awards before handing over the microphone to Leah Busque, general partner at venture capital firm Fuel Capital, for her opening keynote address.

Ideas are not enough

Before joining Fuel Capital, Busque had founded TaskRabbit, an online marketplace for customers to book other users for odd jobs such as picking up laundry or putting together Ikea furniture.

Busque had worked at technology firm IBM for eight years, helping to develop business collaboration tool Lotus Notes before making the leap to entrepreneurship. She said: “I used to think all the good ideas were gone, but then I realised there were so many problems that needed solving,” adding that she saw “ideas not as an invention but as a discovery”.

The idea for TaskRabbit came to her in early 2008 when she was about to go out for dinner but realised she had forgotten to buy dog food. She looked at her iPhone – which was only released four months previously and did not yet have an app store – and asked herself whether there was a way to use the device to pay someone else to do it for her.

Busque challenged the concept that an idea was enough, noting: “I have so many people come up to me and say ‘I had the same idea for TaskRabbit 10 years ago’, and I say: ‘That is amazing. What did you do with it?’ and they reply: ‘Nothing’.” She emphasised: “It is about the execution of an idea.”

She also contested the notion that entrepreneurs should keep their idea a closely-guarded secret, as sharing an idea created value, from initial feedback on its validity to being connected to people who might help. She explained that after telling a friend about her idea, she was connected to Scott Griffith, then chief executive of car-sharing company Zipcar, who became a mentor.

It was not all smooth sailing, however, and Busque admitted that a particularly tough moment came in 2014 when TaskRabbit had to throw out its entire codebase and start from scratch after realising that an auction-type approach rather than a real-time transaction was preventing the platform from scaling. But she added: “Having something done is better than having something perfect. Sometimes we can get paralysed in the concept that something has to be perfect.”

And the story had a happy end – it turned out putting Ikea furniture together was the number-one task posted on the platform, and that piqued the retailer’s interest, which first formed a partnership in 2016 before acquiring TaskRabbit the following year.

“Who are we?”

After the opening keynote, delegates split into a variety of smaller sessions, such as one on the evolving profession of technology transfer, which asked: “Who are we?” Trying to answer that question were moderator Richard Chylla, executive director of Michigan State University’s tech transfer arm MSU Technologies; Henric Rhedin, president of Autm’s European counterpart ASTP-Proton; Martin Raditsch, chief executive of -Goethe University of Frankfurt’s commercialisation unit Innovectis; and James Zanewicz, chief business officer of Tulane University School of Medicine’s office of research business development.

Rhedin argued that there was a profession but that it was not very well defined. This mattered because definition meant recognition, not least of all by the taxpayer, who tended to see a university solely as an education and research institute, and by politicians.

The funding for knowledge transfer, or utilisation as Rhedin dubbed it, should be a third of a university’s budget, but for the top six universities in Sweden it was officially zero, meaning it was not recognised as a core business. The recognition would also make it easier to include people in the profession who were not seen as part of it, such as PhD students.

Raditsch said that whenever he was asked what he did, he would reply “technology transfer”, which showed to him that there was some understanding that it was a profession. You could even find people doing the same job not only within universities but also in industry and government. One challenge was internationalising the profession  – each country, and even each university, had different cultures and understandings of what technology transfer entailed.

Zanewicz pointed to internationally recognised qualifications, such as registered technology transfer professional (RTTP), as proof that the profession existed and that the sector was moving towards uniformity. But the fact that offices had become more complex over time and added countless new job titles made it more difficult. He added: “We are almost like a profession of researchers in our own right. We are expected to make perfect decisions from imperfect and often incomplete data.”

Zanewicz also agreed with a comment from audience member Chris Noble, director of corporate engagement at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who said it would be great if students graduated with a solid understanding of intellectual property. Zanewicz added that liberal arts students, too, should be taught these skills as science, technology, engineering and mathematics made up only a fraction of the student body.

“Not a bunch of failed scientists”

Elsewhere, a breakout session on assessing and improving an office’s performance was led by Tony Raven, chief executive of University of Cambridge’s tech transfer office Cambridge Enterprise. He welcomed Alison Campbell, Erin Rayment, a director in University of Southern Queensland’s office of research development, and Christian Stein, general manager of Ascenion, the technology transfer partner of several institutes within the Helmholtz Association and Leibniz Association, on stage.

Rayment presented a career pathway framework developed by Autm’s Australian sister organisation Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia. The framework provides a guide to recruiting staff, identifying individual, team and department resource requirements, and understanding external expectations.

The document, which shows the capabilities an early, middle and senior professional should demonstrate, would be helpful for human resources and for the federal government, illustrating what the profession achieved for the country.

Rayment said education was Australia’s third-biggest export and tech transfer was a way to engage with corporates and tell a story that made prospective students want to come to Australia, which in turn would contribute to a university’s key performance indicators even if actual technology transfer was a fraction of that equation.

Cambpell acknowledged that recognition mattered personally, professionally and nationally, and that there might be some crossover – professional recognition could equate to personal recognition. But it would also mean that if there was a standard to judge staff against, that would create a standard to judge the whole office, and that in turn would be an argument for the manager to secure training funds.

“It is not necessarily about the licensing figures and the bottom line,” Campbell noted, because there were many impacts that remained unmeasured. The bottom line also meant ignoring staff not working on licences and spinouts, such as communications and legal teams.

RTTP, she concluded, had really helped her case because it served as justification to the universities that tech transfer offices were not simply “a bunch of failed scientists” but people with a particular skillset. It also helped on a political level, as the qualification demonstrated staff at the oft-cited Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were doing the same thing.

Stein, meanwhile, described the Critical Friends initiative, which enabled tech transfer offices to be evaluated by experts to find potential weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. The report cost between $9,000 and $13,500 and included a week of preparatory work by thought leaders such as Tom Hockaday, former chief executive of University of Oxford’s tech transfer office Oxford University Innovation. The experts would interview all staff over the course of two days and offer their recommendations.

Stein acknowledged that the process was intimidating and required being open about an office – including details about staff and figures that would not be shared with a run-of-the-mill evaluator. But the fact that the report was commissioned by the head of a unit rather than an external person made the process highly valuable, Stein added.

Raven picked up on a comment by Rayment that Australia’s press was constantly reporting how bad universities were at commercialisation, noting that even he, as a Cambridge employee, thought one article published by a UK newspaper arguing that “Oxford is the worst university in the world for commercialisation” was particularly harsh.

Raven said that following crticism that commercialisation activities were too slow, Cambridge Enterprise undertook a study that showed documents spend 10% of time on an academic’s desk, 15% in the tech transfer office and 75% with external parties. Speeding up the process internally would do little to optimise it, Raven concluded.

Cambridge Enterprise had also begun analysing its performance and realised that despite creating many spinouts each year, it had yet to reach its highest maturity level for those processes. But there was good news, too. Raven said that, thanks to consultancy agreements handled by his office, $30m had been shown to have flowed back into the university through partnerships and connections established by faculty with corporates.

Written in the stars: licensing, joint ventures and spinouts

Another breakout session featured Jonathan Jensen, director of licensing at Salk Institute for Biological Studies; Wesley Chen, manager of external innovation at pharmaceuticals group Johnson & Johnson; Han Lim, vice-president, global head of partnering at biotech developer Atomwise; and Vaibhav Saini, technology development and licensing manager at MilliporeSigma, the life sciences subsidiary of pharmaceuticals group Merck.

Chen said his unit was particularly interested in getting involved in the very early stages, to the point where a university would occasionally tell him he should wait for a while. He added that his innovation centre could offer not only infrastructure to researchers but could also help derisk a target indication even if faculty was looking into a disease with a smaller market potential, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) with a view to considering it for a larger patient population such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. “We do try to be flexible,” Chen declared.

His unit could be very conservative, Chen admitted, noting that he liked to see an appetite from other investors, but could also move very quickly if an interesting opportunity arose. He cited one particular deal that was closed within three weeks. On the flipside, Chen said, it could sometimes be a frustrating experience to find the right office within a university to approach, and if a spinout was primarily interested in money, then corporate venturing arm Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation would be a much better fit.

Lim explained that Atomwise was keen on collaborating in the biology space and it, too, was focused on the very early stage. Atomwise was interested in helping advance early targets to clinical candidates, as the company had identified a gap there. “We are really passionate about the fact that if projects fail,” Lim said, “it is because of the science and not because of a lack of resources.”

Atomwise had no geographic boundaries, but dealing with companies further afield inevitably meant slower progress as the firm familiarised itself with different jurisdictions. Atomwise, too, would want an investment partner, such as a venture capital firm comfortable with the high-risk profile, Lim added.

Saini picked up on Lim’s comment that it was all about advancing leads but noted that MilliporeSigma was very much research tool-focused, meaning that even a molecule that might fail for a certain indication could remain commercially viable if it was able to influence experiments in significant ways. Saini was conducting licensing deals and connected both with researchers who were already well known or had potential.

Being part of the Merck ecosystem meant university researchers could benefit from countless resources beyond MilliporeSigma’s own, Saini added. It also meant that such a researcher would be among the first in line for potential partnerships.

“Smart money is still rare”

The second day began with a plenary that invited all delegates back to the ballroom for a discussion involving Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia University’s commercialisation office Columbia Technology Ventures, and four venture capitalists – Jim Flynn, managing partner of Deerfield Partners; Jenna Foger, senior vice-president, science and technology, at Alexandria Real Estate Equities; Yoav Tzruya, general partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP); and Carmichael Roberts, member of Breakthrough Energy Ventures and founder and managing partner of Material Impact.

The panel discussed a variety of topics. Herskowitz noted that there seemed to be a lot of money available and he had heard from some VCs that they were not able to join funding rounds that five years ago only they would have been able to back.

Flynn challenged that notion, saying: “We do not see competition at the early stage.” He acknowledged that venture capital was cyclical and that the success rate for biotechnology spinouts was only 4%, which was why his firm invested in a lot of them – with a diversified portfolio of 50 companies the odds of each failing dropped to less than 1%.

Roberts noted that a fund size should be tailored to what the investment team was trying to achieve. As a rule of thumb, he said, larger funds struggled to conclude early-stage deals and that had thrown many investors off when they moved from a small successful fund to a larger vehicle.

Tzruya agreed, adding that a larger fund often meant a change of strategy and a larger team, which could lead to more risk aversion. JVP kept its funds small for precisely that reason, he said, and refused to follow its VC peers into large seed rounds, opting instead for more reasonable sums of around $2m. He concluded that “in most categories today, the smart money is still rare”.

Tzruya also cautioned entrepreneurs that many VC firms brought out their star investor to lure a startup but then assigned a junior investor once the deal was done. The person a startup was dealing with, Tzruya asserted, was much more important than giving up an additional 5% equity.

Foger, who noted that Alexandria invested off the balance sheet, said there was no doubt that great science came from all over the world, but that it remained difficult to find the right talent to bring a drug to market.

Flynn also picked up on that idea when asked by Herskowitz why none of them was based in Silicon Valley and whether they had any interest in building ecosystems. It all depended on the sector, Flynn claimed, as creating a renewable and expandable talent pool proved more challenging in some cities than in others.

Tzruya also revealed that JVP’s play was focused on establishing ecosystems, before Herskowitz disclosed that Alexandria would be building a new incubator on Columbia’s campus, joking that “the construction schedule says nine months, but it is New York so sometime before the turn of the century”.

AI changes everything

A breakout session then discussed how to navigate artificial intelligence (AI). Moderated by Cindy Chepanoske, manager, business development and licensing in the Centre for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation at Carnegie Mellon University, it also featured Christina McDonough, principal at law firm Fish & Richardson; Bruce Porter, professor in the department of computer science at University of Texas at Austin; and Manny Stockman, principal at spinout-focused investment firm Osage University Partners.

Porter provided an overview of AI technologies, introducing the audience to the three types of the technology – supervised, which provides an algorithm with known data to support future judgements, unsupervised, which is best known for its application in data mining, and reinforcement learning, which allows a machine to determine the ideal behaviour within a specific context and requires little manual input.

Stockman stressed that while the hype around AI had driven up valuations, Osage was primarily interested in how quickly a company could move to market. Intellectual property, he revealed, was relevant but of secondary interest to his firm. He welcomed the fact that most startups in the space were now verticals rather than platforms, as most of the latter had struggled to achieve scale and several had collapsed.

One important factor considered by Osage was the source for a company’s data – if it was proprietary it could be a significantly more valuable proposition than if it tapped into data that was publicly available. Stockman also emphasised that his firm was keenly aware of privacy regulations, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and needed to know how portfolio companies dealt with these requirements.

McDonough, meanwhile, gave an overview of the legal implications of AI, noting, among other things, that guidance from the European and US patent offices largely indicated that abstract ideas of what machine learning algorithms did was not enough to secure patents. Instead, she informed the audience, the algorithm needed to be specified in detail and researchers needed to explain carefully what the AI did and how it achieved its goals – if an algorithm merely collected and analysed data, that would not be a patentable invention.

“We all have hammers looking for nails”

Another panel considered health innovation from invention to commercialisation and featured Verena Kallhoff, manager of WorkSpaces at the Texas Health CoLab in the Dell Medical School at University of Texas at Austin; Les Nichols, interim director of the office of technology commercialisation at University of Texas at Austin; Doug Stoakley, chief operating officer of medical device company ClearCam; John Uecker, chief executive of ClearCam and an associate professor in the department of surgery and perioperative care in the Dell Medical School; and Nishi Viswanathan, director of the translational research program Texas Health Catalyst in the Dell Medical School.

Viswanathan claimed that “we all have hammers looking for nails” but that nobody knew much about the clinical validity of early-stage devices and that was a challenge. The Texas Health Catalyst was launched asking what the primary gaps were faced by researchers, but Viswanathan was keen to stress that it was not an accelerator as it conducted a lot of pre-work and accompanied portfolio companies even after they had left the program.

The program’s aim was also not simply picking the best technologies, but it had a specific remit to develop the next generation of innovators, which was why it gave vast amounts of feedback even to projects it declined to take on. The catalyst also worked closely with the office of technology commercialisation, with feedback shared both ways.

Stoakley explained that ClearCam, a spinout of University of Texas at Austin, had developed the equivalent of a windshield wiper for laparoscopic surgery, meaning the camera did not need to be removed every five to 10 minutes during surgery to be wiped down manually. The problem was well-vetted, Stoakley declared, as the team had interviewed 31 surgeons in the field without revealing the technology and asked them what their biggest challenge was – 29 cited wiping down the camera as their top concern.

ClearCam completed countless programs, such as the Rice Business Plan Competition, Stoakley continued, but Texas Health Catalyst was the only program where facilitators asked what the team needed, making it an extremely valuable proposition.

Uecker revealed that the spinout had raised an $800,000 seed round from an angel syndicate in Houston and family and friends in November 2018. He added that while there was nothing that specifically had not worked for him in the catalyst program, he would have appreciated more cross-pollination.

Nichols insisted that not every successful company needed intellectual property, but acknowledged that it was valuable in the case of ClearCam. Picking up on a comment by Stoakley that the office of technology commercialisation had always negotiated in good faith, Nichols argued that “5% of a good company is worth more than 50% of a dead company”.

“Scientists are people too”

The closing keynote was held by Ayanna Howard, chairwoman of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, who told the audience about her journey from a space robotics developer for Nasa to developing intelligent robots that help disabled children.

When Howard joined Georgia Institute of Technology and came to grips with the reality that academic budgets were “basically zero compared with what we had” at Nasa, she applied her knowledge about space robotics to applications on earth. She built robots that could explore Antarctica and others that could conduct exploration beneath the ice.

Here she had learned a crucial lesson after her first iteration of a robot to walk across Antarctica was deemed unworkable by a faculty member because they moved too slowly – leading Howard to conclude that “when you design for an individual, you have to bring them in early”.

She also learned that “I actually like people”, before joking: “Don’t get me wrong, scientists are people too, but I was essentially their knowledge.” That led her to exploring healthcare robotics – a field that would become increasingly important as life expectancies increased. Howard pointed out that in countries with a life expectancy of more than 70 years, people spent an average of eight years with a disability.

But 150 million children already had a disability, according to conservative estimates, and in the US alone the paediatric rehabilitation industry was worth $1.6bn. Howard’s work in that field first led her to develop intelligent robots able to keep children engaged throughout therapy by playing with them.

Howard revealed that this work led to the creation of Zyrobotics in 2013, which commercialised an accessible robot programming platform for children with special needs. To date, Howard said, the company had attracted more than 450,000 customers.

“Science is not business”

Not every faculty member is a born entrepreneur, and taking on that challenge was one of the final breakout panels featuring Eric Ginsburg, interim director of technology commercialisation at University of Chicago’s Polsky Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Andrew Ellington, the Fraser professor of biochemistry at University of Texas at Austin; Don Rose, director of Kickstart Venture Services at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; and Matthew Cohen, partner, life sciences, at Osage University Partners.

Rose warned delegates that if a researcher wanted a spinout to fund the lab, this could be a red flag. He also suggested faculty should put around $5,000 into the company as a way for the researcher to have some skin in the game and to pay for some initial costs, such as legal fees.

The financial commitment also forced a conversation with a spouse, Rose added, about going ahead with the spinout and asking other questions, such as the additional time spent in work. Faculty should not, Rose cautioned, call themselves chief executive or president of the spinout – legally they were likely to be incorrect terms – but instead refer to themselves as founder, consultant or member of the scientific advisory board. Even if the faculty member chose not to pursue an active role long-term in the company, he or she was instrumental in the early stages and could exert some level of influence through scientific contributions.

Ellington echoed many of Rose’s points and quipped: “I remember putting my skin in the game for one of my companies and I will never see that skin again.” The money also served as an initial comparatively small hurdle for faculty to jump over and showed a willingness to face increasingly bigger obstacles.

Faculty had to be willing to be all in but at the same time recede when the tech transfer office said no to a decision. “Science is not business,” Ellington declared.

Cohen offered some insights into the thinking of venture capitalists, asserting that “VCs do not want control”, before adding that he did not have the will or the time to run someone else’s business. Investors, he said, stepped in only when things had gone wrong.

Faculty also needed to understand that they should show their best data within the first couple of slides of their pitch and grab an investor’s attention within the first three minutes. Founders, Cohen finished, wanted someone to say yes, but investors were looking for reasons to say no – a position that researchers needed to understand when pitching their spinout.

“Riding a bike through feet-deep mud”

Concluding the Autm annual meeting was a panel on best practices in women’s entrepreneurship programs. Moderated by Rachel Lin, counsel at law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, the panel included Mary Juhas, associate vice-president at Ohio State University; Kristen Otto, marketing and communications manager in the office of technology management at Washington University in St Louis; and Jeanette Hill, founder of medical device manufacturer Spot On Sciences.

Juhas provided an overview of her offering, Ohio State Advance, that aims to retain and help to progress women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program came out of the US National Science Foundation’s Advance scheme, which allocates five years of non-renewable funding to institutions that commit to sharing their findings with other awardees and develop a distinctive initiative. In the case of Ohio State University, the distinctive feature was a reach for commercialisation.

Juhas acknowledged how hard it had been, saying: “Sometimes this work is like riding a bike through feet-deep mud.” She noted that one key challenge faced by female faculty was their lack of a network and the fact that many were uncomfortable with self-promotion, keeping them away from opportunities afforded to male colleagues.

Otto said her program was funded by a diversity grant from the vice-provost’s office, but that also meant it was a shoestring budget. Washington’s initiative was slightly different to Ohio State University’s in that it also accepted post-doctoral candidates and occasionally students.

Otto revealed that the program had driven invention disclosures by women from 25% to 50% and that the university had finally launched two women-founded spinouts, after previously having no such companies.

Hill, whose Spot On Sciences developed a device that enabled patients to take a blood sample at home that would remain stable at room temperature for years, revealed herself to be a true entrepreneur when she said she had sold Spot On to a private equity firm last year and had already launched her next venture, a startup called NanAby that for now remained in stealth mode.

Hill recommended to the largely female audience that women faculty join a dedicated entrepreneur program – not an MBA – but that they already had one key advantage over fellow female founders – as academics, they knew how to write grant applications and that was a great way of securing funding without dilution or an obligation to pay back the money.

She also echoed thoughts from a previous panel, noting that inventors had to be absolutely sure they had the passion to put their technology into people’s hands.

Breaking new ground

As delegates gathered for one last reception in the grand ballroom, one message rang the halls and showed that, despite the challenges and the perhaps unusual question of whether the technology transfer profession even existed, this was a group of people serious about impacting the world.

That message came from Richard Chylla, freshly-minted chairman of Autm, who had said earlier in the day: “All of us at this conference are fortunate to be working in a profession that catalyses, encourages, facilitates, promotes, advances and sometimes drags technology from research laboratories to companies, where it is transformed into products and services that make a better world.

“It is an exciting journey. Autm wants to be with you every step of the way.”

After three days of delegates filling dozens of rooms across three floors, there can be no doubt Autm is serious about that mission.