April 30, 2012

Tech transfer conference held at Carey School

Phil Phan and Wes Blakeslee were chatting last fall about the unprecedented success in technology transfer that Johns Hopkins and several other universities have experienced in recent years. Phan, interim dean of the university’s Carey Business School, asked Blakeslee, executive director of JHU’s Technology Transfer Office, for an explanation. What’s caused this remarkable growth?

The Carey dean’s curiosity would lead to a conference held April 19 at the business school’s Harbor East campus. Titled “Making a Quantum Leap in Technology Transfer,” the daylong event attracted about 60 researchers and tech transfer officials from universities across the United States.

The main conclusion, and the answer to Phan’s question, was this: University-based offices of tech transfer (the process by which discoveries born of research are guided toward the commercial marketplace) accomplish far more when they behave like well-run businesses.

“If you run a tech transfer office as a venture capitalist might, you’ll see these quantum leaps,” Phan said in an interview after the conference. “Look at what venture capitalists do. They take a very hard-nosed business approach to a new idea, evaluating it and determining whether it has any market value. They have to do this in an environment of high uncertainty, so having good evaluation processes in place is important.”

Or, as Blakeslee noted on a slide during his presentation at the conference, “KNOW THE NUMBERS.”

Tech transfer offices, he said, have taken major strides in the past five years toward precise data gathering and financial management. The upshot? More-efficient offices that have a deeper sense of how to move scientific findings quickly from the lab to the commercial pipeline.

JHU’s Tech Transfer Office has been among the quantum leapers, with whopping gains since 2006 in invention disclosures (up 68 percent), U.S. patents issued (up 49 percent) and startup companies launched (from four in 2006 to 19 last year). A disclosure is a formal declaration of a discovery filed by the researcher with the host institution.

The tech transfer office of the University of Pennsylvania, another conference participant, saw similar gains. From 2008 to 2011, Penn roughly tripled its startups and commercialization agreements.

The Carey Business School, which requires MBA students to take a Discovery to Market course, has envisioned a natural role for itself as “a thought leader in the area of technology transfer,” Phan said. “We partner with the Hopkins Tech Transfer Office in bringing the market analysis and the market-facing part of the innovation process.”

It wasn’t so long ago, said Blakeslee, when technology transfer ranked low on the list of the university’s priorities.

“Hopkins did not see it as a big part of its mission,” he said in a post-conference interview. “But I think we’re over that now. We understand that there are appropriate times and appropriate ways to work with industry. We see that there’s a benefit to doing so, because if we really want to have the most impact by getting products out to help people, we have to work with industry.”

Both Blakeslee and Phan hasten to point out that this doesn’t mean changing the university’s research-focused culture. “The good tech transfer offices avoid doing that,” Phan said. “They know that bench scientists are bench scientists, and that’s their greatest value. It’s better to identify those researchers who have the interest and the tendency to pursue commercialization of their discoveries. The idea is to work with those individuals and facilitate their efforts.”

“As is true at all universities, the percent of Johns Hopkins faculty members who get involved in tech transfer is relatively small,” Blakeslee said. “Not everybody participates. Those who want to can get very involved; some have even started companies. Those who don’t want to be actively involved need not take significant time from their other activities, as the Tech Transfer Office makes the tech transfer process very easy.”

“Making a Quantum Leap” marked the second time that the Carey Business School has hosted a conference on tech transfer. An event two years ago focused on how to finance projects. Phan said that other conferences are likely to be held “as the phenomenon evolves. When the need arises to address another important aspect of tech transfer, then we’ll do it. It has to be issue-driven.”

Along with the Carey Business School and the Johns Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer, the conference’s sponsors were the School of Business at the University of Albany, Baltimore-based law firms Whiteford, Taylor & Preston and Gordon Feinblatt, and the research, development and technical services firm RTI International. The nine academic papers presented at the conference by researchers from the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, Northwestern University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Institutes of Health and other institutions will be considered for publication by the Journal of Technology Transfer.