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24 May 2017

University venturing: the view from Cornell – an interview with Alice Li

Coller Institute of Venture’s community director, Vladi Dvoyris, interviewed Alice Li, executive director of the Centre for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Cornell University.

Author: Vladi Dvoyris, Coller Institute of Venture

Tell us about your background and the activity of CTL.

I have a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell, and worked in a startup after graduating. I then started to work in technology transfer, first as a portfolio manager in a tech transfer office (TTO), and advanced to management in CTL.

CTL is a university-wide office serving all Cornell campuses. It manages intellectual property (IP) from all university groups. Every year we add 400 new disclosures, and assign about 100 licences, and see some 11 to 15 startups as a result.

Cornell is recognised for its success in launching startups. Every TTO has its own “secret sauce”. What is yours?

We had to decide what areas of technology to focus on. The environment in New York is not Silicon Valley, much as we might like it to be. People think we should revive activity in technology, although New York is more about finance. We tried to help establish more startup companies, within the New York City ecosystem, and in addition we collaborate with the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program and have established a new incubator to support startups in Cornell.

You mentioned 11 new startups spun off last year. Do your metrics track startups established, or those that survive over time?

We have many different metrics. The important one is impact – number of products that made it to the market based on your startups. We track these startups over the years. In our geographic region we have more work to do on this because we are less connected to the venture scene than Silicon Valley or Boston.

When the entrepreneurs go elsewhere with their companies – to Boston, New York, or San Francisco – do they remain connected to the university or do they become part of the industry?

Our connection to the companies is through their licence agreement, so we maintain an ongoing relationship. If they succeed, they also pay the university a small royalty. We don’t control them or their decision-making, however. The association with the university is that these alumni want to contribute back once they become successful.

Are you free to use royalties money as you see fit – for example to reinvest in new ventures – or does the university decide what to do with it?

In this we follow policy strictly, and the policy varies from university to university. Usually there is a portion to the inventors, a portion to support university units, and the university can decide how to apply its share.

What is the most crucial tip you can give to anyone starting a new technology transfer office?

The basic thing is that the program mission has to match the university’s mission. The tech transfer office has to align the mission first.

In terms of specifics, it is important to respect general principles, but also to be flexible and creative in making this work.

In managing the office, many employees have been in companies before, and they are the ones making it work.

The Cornell Tech campus in New York City is a collaboration with the Technion in Israel, which has its own accomplished TTO. Are you planning to collaborate with that TTO, or would CTL be solely responsible for New York activity?

We plan to collaborate. We already have a number of joint initiatives.

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