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27 March 2017

Linda Naylor looks back on 15 years with OUI

Oxford University Innovation’s managing director Linda Naylor speaks to GUV about her influential career.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

Linda Naylor, managing director at Oxford University’s tech transfer office (TTO) Oxford University Innovation (OUI), has seen many interesting changes and ground-breaking technologies in her time.

Global University Venturing spoke to Naylor about her 15 years with OUI, set to come to end next month as she retires and is replaced by Adam Stoten, who will become chief operating officer from April 1.

Sitting in her office, which overlooks a large open floor space making up much of OUI, she notes how the number of employees has grown from roughly 20 people to nearly 100 in the space of a decade and a half that she has been with the office.

Naylor appears rightfully proud of that growth and the hard work her team puts in day in day out, when asked about the highlights of the past 15 years.

“For me, personally, although we are seen as one of the world-leading TTOs, it has been building up such a strong team of people – it is the people behind it that have made it,” Naylor said.

“Obviously the research from the university is first-class, world-class, which is almost a given as it is Oxford. But for me tech transfer is all about people, and without the people we would not be this world-leading TTO – one of them anyway.”

Of course, the external perception of a tech transfer office will always be guided by the kind of disruptive technologies it brings to the market, and Naylor has no shortage of examples here.

Her two choices, however, are remarkable in that they illustrate the complexities and occasional frustrations of tech transfer.

Neither of them went on to provide a blockbuster exit like that of Circassia, the allergy treatment developer spun out of Imperial College London that raised the largest UK biotech IPO in 2014 with $332m in proceeds. And both technologies took a long time to make it to market.

Naylor noted that both existed when she first joined OUI. The first one is a device for liver transplantation.

“This particular device retained livers at normal conditions – it mimicked the body’s conditions,” Naylor explained. “Currently, livers are frozen and they cannot be transported very far, whereas maintaining the body’s normal conditions allows livers to be transported much further.

“The other thing is, currently about half the livers are thrown away – they are not used because they form fatty deposits. This device regenerates them, so it means you could use a much larger proportion of livers than currently.

“We had a patent on that when I first came here and we could not initially get investors interested in it. They kept saying it was not a big enough financial return for them. But it was very altruistic and it is a lovely story, so we kept supporting and in the end it spun out in 2009.

“We changed the business model and investors came on board, and people are walking around now with livers that have been kept alive by that device.”

It may not be a headline-grabbing story, or indeed a multibillion-dollar company but, Naylor said, “the impact on people’s lives is tremendous.”

Herein arguably lies the beauty of technology transfer and the story underlines Naylor’s passion for the sector. A passion which, unsurprisingly, her second example further illustrates.

“One of the other technologies, again it was here when I came, was an invention that allowed you to take blood from a mother to detect foetal DNA. By developing tests using that technique you could check for conditions such as Down’s syndrome.

“It meant mothers did not have to and have amniocentesis, which comes with risks. That was not a spinout – we licensed that technology. Again, the income from that has been significant but the impact worldwide on women is tremendous.”

The fact that both examples happen to be healthcare are not necessarily a coincidence, as Naylor’s background before joining OUI was in life sciences. But it also reflects the changing times of the tech transfer world.

When she joined the university, she said, “there was not much being done in the physical sciences area at all”.

She added: “Initially, tech transfer was more in the life sciences area. Why was that? Possibly because big companies, pharmaceutical companies, were already used to collaborating with universities and it was not novel to them. And patents hold discrete value.

“In the physical sciences that was underdeveloped, and the commercialisation is different. It has taken longer for the physical sciences side to come to the fore.”

The shift away from a sole focus on life sciences also occurred as technology transfer became a more recognised discipline. Choosing tech transfer was not a mainstream career move 15 years ago, Naylor said, describing the world then as a bit of a mystery to outsiders.

“Now I think it is a respected career and it is a much more respected path of seeing the impact of government-funded research, if nothing else.”

Naylor’s career may always have been leading to the technology transfer world, but she began her professional career as a laboratory microbiologist for chemicals company ICI, which later became Zeneca and eventually biopharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.

Naylor’s job during that time involved “developing biological products for businesses”.

She continued: “I worked across all sorts of different kinds of industry – food industry, chemicals industry, polymer industry and so on – and during that time a few things happened.

“I decided I did not want to be a bench scientist. I only enjoyed putting the thoughts into the experiments, I did not enjoy doing them.”

That led her to the realisation that “with all these different projects and developing businesses, technically we seem to be getting it right” but it did not quite work out during the commercialisation stage.

It was that frustration that made Naylor decide she could do a better job of commercialisation efforts herself. It helped, of course, that “the passion was always there for developing these smaller businesses, rather than a big pharmaceutical”.

The frustration was further compounded by one business Naylor had been involved in, which revolved around biodegradable polymers and was sold to agrochemical business Monsanto. Naylor moved to Monsanto with the rest of the team, a transaction that came at a time when mergers and acquisitions were dominating the industry and stifling innovation.

“That time I really wanted to leave the corporate world and asked myself what I could do. As I said, I was passionate about nascent technologies and developing them to a marketable product. I also felt I had learned a lot doing what I had done and I wanted to share that with people,” Naylor continued.

Her first step, and, as it would turn out, her penultimate stop, was York University, where there was no fully-fledged technology transfer division at the time.

“I learned it there,” Naylor said. “I spun out a few technologies, a few companies, and then Oxford asked me to come here.”

Technology transfer later moved from life sciences to include the physical sciences, and the obvious question is what the future holds. Unsurprisingly, Naylor has the answer, as Oxford is leading a trend that is set to change the world of tech transfer once again.

“It is ideas that come out of humanities and social sciences. That is not traditional intellectual property, but there are some fabulous ideas coming out.”

Another trend that Naylor has seen grow over the years is software, an area that essentially did not exist in tech transfer when she first joined OUI.

“But software is different, it is not about hardcore intellectual property (IP) patents. We looked at ways in which the university could capture value from this and how we could help people that had ideas that generated a piece of software.

“That is why we have our own incubator downstairs, that is different to the traditional IP route. It has been such a growing area that we have now been able to capture value from the university and help these technologies get to market.”

Naylor sees another emerging trend – tech transfer offices, she notes, are increasingly collaborating, where possible, with nearby hospitals and National Health Service trusts.

“That is going to grow over the years,” Naylor said. “It has taken a little while and of course the cultures are totally different in many ways, but that will be an area to grow.”

There is yet another change coming, Naylor said, as tech transfer offices are set to reintegrate more closely with universities.

“For a long period, it was very much the case that the top TTOs in the UK were separate companies either wholly or partly owned by their institution. There was a slight movement away from the university, there was a bit of a gap.

“I see certainly for us, and talking to colleagues, there is a move back again to working much more closely with the university. That does not mean we are going to become part of the university – I think we will remain a separate company – but we are much more embedded again, hence the name change. It is obvious now who we are connected to.”

It is a reality also boosted by continuing revisions to university funding, particularly in the UK.

“More and more universities are going to be funded by the impact they are generating through their research, so it is going to be critical that we continue to work very closely with the university.”

That future of funding warrants another question – what are the advantages of a singular organisation, such as OUI, compared with a centralised outfit?

Naylor said: “We are talking of very early-stage research, particularly in the research-intensive areas. I think it is, given how the UK operates, important given that academics feel they want something very close. And that is, again, why we have moved to work much more closely with researchers and have hotdesks in a lot of the departments now.

“If you go back through the history of tech transfer, we started off with British Technology Group, and in the end that fell apart because a centralised system does not work.”

Of course, Naylor conceded, her peers working for larger commercialisation firms have been successful, and cash has played a significant part in that. While OUI now has the benefit of Oxford Sciences Innovation – GUV will take an in-depth look at this relationship in a coming article – the tech transfer office itself only has a small seed fund to get spinouts off the ground.

What OUI lacks in money it certainly makes up for in passion, however. But does Naylor have any worries about the impending Brexit? In a nutshell, no.

“Obviously for the university it brings its own set of issues, like every other university, and they will work to address those. We do technology transfer deals and we transfer technology to companies all over the world,” Naylor says. “There may be some changes in the patent situation because there was going to be a community patent and what will happen with that I do not know, but the fundamentals will still be the same.

“I do not see, for us, too many issues. But obviously, it may affect some of the research coming out of the university, which of course will have an effect on us. But the fact is that we already do business all over the world and we have an established network.”

The one question Naylor in the end struggled to answer was that of regrets. Does she have any?

“I do not, actually. I do not. It has been a great time,” Naylor concluded. “What I find amazing is that even 15 years later, I still see problems as recently as last week that I have never seen before. That is great and that is probably why I have been here for 15 years. No day is the same.”

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