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22 October 2014

Lifetime Achievement Award: Lita Nelsen

MIT's Lita Nelsen wins our Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to technology transfer.

Author: Thierry Heles, reporter

When we spoke to Lita Nelsen about her nomination for the Lifetime Achievement Award, she joked that to “be honest, I thought this was going to be a four-year gig.”

An alumna of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lita’s time at the institute’s Technology Licensing Office (TLO) spans three decades, having joined it in 1986, and leading the unit since 1992. Her impact has been instrumental in shaping MIT’s innovation policy over the past, with her dedication to technology transfer attracting recognition in both the form of the Association of University Technology Managers’ Bayh-Dole Award and becoming a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

She joined the TLO at a time of growth, when MIT had already been producing spin-outs for more than half a century. The progression of the ecosystem at the institute and in the city has been organic ever since its inception. Lita said that her first matter of business was to grow “an infrastructure in the community, investors, lawyers, real-estate people who knew how to work with these spin-outs”.

This was followed by an evolution which took place over the past fifteen years under her tenure: an internal ecosystem emerged at MIT, with “the venture mentoring service, the Deshpande Centre, the Enterprise Forum, the Student Business Plan contest and the Trust Centre for Entrepreneurship”. Interestingly, this growth was not part of a master plan, but rather happened “truly in an ecology way, in that if it works it expands and if it does not it does not.”

What makes this organically progressing setup as opposed to a bureaucracy so successful is that it lets volunteers feel that they can take ownership of the ecosystem. Striking that delicate balance has made Lita’s mission of attracting these volunteers from the investment, business and entrepreneurial communities a lot easier. Indeed, during her tenure, Lita has managed the office’s high-volume flow but always kept the TLO responsive to the faculty, the students and third parties.

Lita found that technology transfer allowed her to combine her technical background and communication skills with her interest in small companies and her desire to do something useful for society. What keeps her interested is the quality of the people Lita gets to work with, not only at MIT, but also with her counterparts in the US and the UK, saying "we work together in what is really a mission for the research community and for the society as a whole".

Another aspect that keeps Lita intrigued in technology transfer is the variety of work MIT offers, which includes the formation and support of companies such as robotics firm Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google), the cycling spin-out Superpedestrian, and wireless electricity firm WiTricity. Lita’s personal favourite project comes from a joint project between the institution and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) based on an invention between a chemical engineering professor at MIT and an orthopaedic surgeon at MGH.

Lita told GUV: "They developed a greatly improved hip-replacement material that solved the problem of fragmentation and the resulting bone dissolution ("osteolysis").  We licensed it to a large orthopaedics company and it has set a new standard for hip implants.  As the surgeon said years later in a Grand Rounds lecture:  ‘[He] had devoted his life to solving the problem of osteolysis and now, ladies and gentlemen, it is done. We changed people’s lives.’”

In recent years, Lita has been confronted with one of her biggest challenges yet as federal funding of research is slowing down and MIT is becoming much more dependent on industry-sponsored research. This has led to successes as much as it is creating new challenges. She also foresees corporates partnering with universities and their spin-outs on open innovation becoming more widespread, with research universities retaining their position as a critical component of economic growth, and technology transfer remaining an important lynchpin in the process.

About the successes of finding industry sponsorship, she said: “What is really interesting is a couple of our sponsors realising that the results of the research were too early for them to take on board in terms of development and were willing to give up their options to startup companies who could be financed by high-risk capital and then they would also invest. That is a very interesting progression we would never have thought of: you tend to think of either big companies supporting your research or spin-outs licensing it and developing it.”

She said: “It is academic policies that keep us focused on state-of-the-art research and dissemination, and at the same time coming up with agreements that fulfil the needs of the industrial sponsors. This is an ever ongoing challenge. Bringing in the resources to do the research without changing ourselves so much that we are not who we want to be.”

Looking ahead, she is not expecting federal funding levels to rise again in the near future, a reality she considers to be purely politically motivated as the US congress is “highly divided in terms of how it looks at the world.”

Lita is staying optimistic however, and with a track record as impressive as Lita Nelsen’s, if there is one person who can navigate the TLO and MIT through these challenging times ahead, then MIT already have them at the helm.

 

Other nominations: Richard Jennings (Cambridge Enterprise), Katherine Ku (Stanford University)

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