10 April 2017
My first AUTM
Ananda Ghosh, marketing associate at NYU Langone Medical Center, takes a look back on his experience at the AUTM 2017 meeting.
Author: Ananda Ghosh, marketing associate at NYU Langone Medical Center
After waiting patiently for nearly two years, I finally got a chance to attend the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) 2017 at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US, thanks to New York University Industrial Liaison – the most important conference for professionals in technology commercialisation. Like every first experience, AUTM 2017 will be etched on my memory as I start my professional journey into the world of innovation and technology transfer.
My first impression of AUTM was its unique platform, which was open, liberal, friendly, approachable and yet educating each one of us in the most difficult and challenging topics of technology transfer. The conference had a central theme – how to help the university innovation reach society in a streamlined fashion and how to fuel this innovation cycle so as to find workable solutions for diseases, energy crises, food and water scarcity, sustainability – some of our generation's immediate challenges.
It was incredible to see an organisation run by a group of behind-the-scenes volunteers managing a conference of more than 1,000 people with precision. The conference had knowledge sessions, training modules, a platform for industry-academia interactions, mentoring sessions and fireside chats, all geared to foster knowledge-sharing and to meet like-minded and the most innovative brains in the field.
Whether it was Stanford's executive director Katherine Ku's fireside chat or a casual meeting with tech transfer leaders from prominent universities, there was only one message, and it was the promotion and development of university innovation through knowledge-sharing.
It's all about marketing
Among my memorable moments of AUTM 2017 was the marketing course for beginners in technology transfer like myself. The course was taught by Arnaud Cottet, Jay Schrankler, Quentin Thomas, Harl Tolbert and Paul Tumarkin. It started with the concept of "brand" and what it means to university tech transfer offices. For TTOs, brand is built on the visibility of university TTOs, and the quality and credibility of the technologies. The course discussed several tools to help TTOs’ marketing efforts using surveys, newsletters, social media, annual reports, outreach events and storytelling.
Marketing was broken down into:
- Plan involves creating the marketing brief and other materials, deciding who your audience is and the timeline.
- Execution involves lead generation, marketing and following up.
- Measure – feedback.
Each of these steps were elaborated using examples and group discussion which made the course really enjoyable and I also got to make great friends in the process.
Some concepts of technology evaluations were also covered in-depth, and the course ended with a talk, by Jay Schrankler, executive director of the office of technology commercialisation at Minnesota University, on how to sell a licence. He explained the selling process, which includes elevator pitch, value proposition, negative objective analysis, product knowledge and customer engagement. He also emphasised the importance of a thorough background check on the company before coming to the negotiating table and to figure out who the decision-makers are for the particular deal on the table.
A key aspect during negotiation is that the "art lies in gathering information", he stressed. One particular piece of advice that I liked was "do not spill the candy in the lobby". One needs to be careful about blasting out every detail of the licence during initial discussions. But one thing the course taught throughout the session was that relationship-building is the foundation of tech transfer. Whether it is marketing, tech assessment, negotiation or post-negotiation management of the licence deals, one needs to build a great working rapport with the partners at every stage of the process. The better one gets at it, the easier it gets for young professionals to become comfortable in the business.
Katherine Ku's fireside chat was the highlight of the conference. Ku's assertion that the goal of university tech transfer is perhaps not so much about licensing income but making sure nascent university technologies gets to see the light of the day, struck chords with many in the audience.
Since it is impossible to summarise all the lectures I attended, I have chosen one particular group discussion – "Launching investable startups has never been more challenging" – which was moderated by Louis Berneman of Osage University Partners, to showcase the quality of discussions at the four-day conference. It involved David Day of Florida University, Todd Sherer of Emory University, Teri Willey of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Robin Rasor of Duke University, Orin Herskowitz of Columbia University, Kathleen Denis of Rockefeller University and Jon Soderstrom of Yale University. I thought it was one of the most entertaining panel discussions of AUTM 2017.
There was a particularly interesting discussion on harnessing a university alumni network. The advantage of maintaining an excellent working relationship with high-net-worth individuals and angel investors from the alumni network and to work in close collaboration with the university development office so that the network can be integrated into the university innovation ecosystem was debated at length. Such a network can have huge implications when it comes to helping university startups cross the funding "valley of death".
A second discussion worth mentioning is the challenge the universities face in recruiting investible CEOs for their startups and placing university technologies in the right hands. The thought leader's answer to scouting for investible CEOs was "meeting interesting people and maintaining a workable database of such individuals" and not through "résumé search." Most agreed "résumés don't teach much about the leadership".
Orin Herskowitz spoke about Columbia's Executives-in-Residence Program which saw spectacular success in harnessing future business leaders. The program allows close in-house interaction involving successful entrepreneurs, thought leaders and company executives with Columbia students and inventors for one-on-one mentoring in areas ranging from media and investment banking to private equity and management. The program has been running for four decades and has significantly contributed to the innovation ecosystem in Columbia.
NYU's tech transfer office incidentally is also starting a niche entrepreneurial project – the Biomedical Entrepreneurship Program – developed by NYU Industrial Liaison and Therapeutics Alliances in collaboration with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, which will help accelerate the commercialisation of biomedical discoveries and inventions made at NYU. It will provide world-class mentoring to NYU students, postdocs and inventors, who are willing to start their entrepreneurial journey specifically focusing on biomedical innovations.
An another interesting discussion concerned the wide variety of programs running in universities, all aiming to help the university innovation ecosystem with overlapping goals and objectives. However, the general sense from the discussion was that even though the various university programs tend to be repetitive, in general, the decentralised approach of creating entrepreneurial awareness is not bad. The "more the merrier" may appear to be overkill, but as long as the goal is to boost the university innovation and help students and the community to take the innovation to the next level, it is all good. But it was also said that trying to synchronise the various programs might help the awareness campaign.
One thing that I learned from my first AUTM meeting was the power of sharing knowledge and education for a common goal of helping university innovation see the light of the day.
It is an excellent time to be in the university tech transfer profession. I am glad that, like many others in the field, I will be able to see and probably contribute towards helping university-based cutting-edge technologies solve some of the most pressing problems the world faces today.
It will also be an interesting time for tech transfer professionals to see technologies in the space of artificial intelligence, data science, space technologies, drug discovery and other areas, giving rise to the next Google or Genentech, pushing the world to the next era of technological revolution.
– This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on LinkedIn, republished with permission from the author.
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