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18 September 2017

Technology transfer is all grown up – from obscurity to sought-after career

Kirsten Leute, of Osage University Partners, takes a look at how the path to a career in technology transfer has changed over the years.

Author: Kirsten Leute, senior vice-president of university relations at Osage University Partners

While my colleagues at Osage University Partners (OUP) have recently been outdoing one another on well-researched articles, I have decided to go the opposite direction and write about some non-data oriented anecdotal thoughts I have had on the technology transfer profession and how it has changed from a little-known job to an actual career.

Around 15 years ago, while I was working at Stanford University’s office of technology licensing (OTL), the calls started coming in – “Could you tell me how to get into university technology transfer?” – “How did you find your job?”

My own path in tech transfer, not unlike the experience of many others, was one of serendipity – I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I had planned on a different career, one in medical illustration, but happened to temp as a receptionist at OTL in 1996. When I was offered a full-time position, I hesitated as it meant shifting my priorities. I ended up staying because of the people – enthusiastic, encouraging, smart and affable.

At the time, most of the people in OTL joined the office with no previous technology transfer experience. They had come to Stanford from business development or other roles in industry. They had studied science, but moved out of the lab and into the relationships and agreement part of the business. And working for a university technology transfer office was interesting, but not highly sought after.

So when I started receiving the calls from people interested in a position in technology transfer, it was a noticeable shift. Many of the people calling were currently in the lab, who, like me, decided their fate was not as a principal investigator or as a lab tech, pipetting, running gels and waiting in line to use expensive instruments. However, they still loved science and were exploring career options to use their deep knowledge and inquiry-based orientation.

A first stop, often close to home for doctoral students and post-docs, was the university’s technology transfer office, sometimes as an intern. However, having a scientific background is not enough to qualify for a position in tech transfer. The role of technology transfer officer – or manager, or associate, or one of the many other titles used by academic institutions – is that of relationship management and business development with faculty, students, administrators, corporate business development managers, attorneys, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and so on. In responding to these inquiries about tech transfer jobs, I thought about whether the person had the requisite scientific background and, perhaps more importantly, the personal characteristics for a very demanding job:

  • Excellent listening skills.
  • Good communicators, both verbally and written.
  • Highly responsive.
  • Logical, especially to pick up reading and writing agreements which many new hires have no previous experience with.
  • Ability to ask relevant questions.
  • Conversationalists.
  • Multitaskers who did not get stuck in the weeds.

In short, someone who can establish and maintain strong long-term relationships and handle the firehose of inputs that is a tech transfer officer’s daily job.

With the increased scope and responsibilities in tech transfer, the technology transfer office is not concentrating solely on the licensing of its intellectual property, but spinout formation, gap funding and translational research funds, industrial collaborations and a host of other activities. This transformation begs either, or both, an increase in the tech transfer officer’s skills, or new hires with appropriate experience to address these expanded responsibilities. Growth also means office directors manage a larger staff with differing responsibilities. Considering the new and expanded roles of tech transfer offices, are universities looking to shift to a new sort of leadership or keep the status quo? I think there is a pull both ways – knowledge of how to run the operation, while hiring people who think outside the traditional tech transfer box.

Turnover is also an issue in tech transfer. While the job is exciting – seeing the cutting edge of research, working with some of the greatest minds in the world and helping nascent technologies grow into products to better the world – and the people working in the offices are exceptional – which I saw in my previous job and see daily at my current job too – it is also very demanding. Most offices are underresourced which means very large caseloads. Salaries at universities are typically lower than their industry counterparts. And as a service organisation, there is a lot of work and grief without a lot of recognition.

Which could mean that there should be constant opportunities for all those people calling me, trying to break out of the lab. But somehow there never seemed to be. One characteristic I found for those who did make it into the field was, not surprisingly, perseverance. Add that to the long list of personal capabilities, beyond technical experience.

I have been out of the game as a tech transfer professional for only two years. But the knowledge and skills required to be an effective tech transfer manager and leader of a technology transfer office seem to be ever increasing and more challenging. As a profession, we still have our critics and, to be sure, some criticisms are justified. But, as a group, I continue to be impressed and marvel at my colleagues’ ability and enthusiasm to do such demanding and potentially world-altering work.

I welcome your thoughts – and stay tuned for my colleague Lou Berneman’s companion article in this month’s GUV magazine. What are your recommendations for people looking to join the field?

– A version of this post first appeared on Medium. It has been republished with permission.

Copyright Mawsonia Limited 2010. Please don´t cut articles from or the PDF and redistribute by email or post to the web without written permission.

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