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Reaping the Fruits of Research

September 2008--People sometimes say discovery is its own reward, and while many researchers do strive to follow that mantra, modern discovery is also a business. And so, in addition to top-notch researchers, universities need top-notch technology transfer offices to help turn their advances into new therapies and devices.

However, in the past, there was a perception that Hopkins’ technology transfer office was slow and laborious and generally tried to squeeze every last penny out of a license agreement—qualities that made both researchers and external companies reluctant to join the party.   

Although Tech Transfer’s leaders say such sentiments weren’t totally accurate, Hopkins has committed to re-inventing its tech transfer image. While many long-tenured Hopkins researchers might say they’ve heard this tale before, the office points to its recent track record as evidence it’s made major strides.

In the past fiscal year, for example, Tech Transfer oversaw the creation of 12 startups based in whole or in part on technology developed at the School of Medicine—triple the average number of startups in the past. Together, those firms have received $76 million in private financing.

“These 12 didn’t happen by accident,” says Wes Blakeslee, who became Tech Transfer’s executive director two years ago. “We took very specific steps to increase the number of startups.” Among those actions was making inroads with the venture capital community as well as with angel investors—wealthy individuals who provide financing for startups. For example, in February the office planned and hosted a regional conference where 90 angel investors heard presentations from several startup companies, two of which received funding out of the event.

Aside from startup formation, Tech Transfer also points to strong growth between fiscal years 2006 and 2008 in invention disclosures (up 25 percent), licenses and options (60 percent), and licensing revenue (44 percent.) 

Blakeslee notes that Tech Transfer—and, by extension, researchers—have had to adapt to changing times. Before, when biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies were in a period of strong growth, it was fairly straightforward to license promising research discoveries. But as the industry has switched from growth to consolidation, companies are less willing to snatch up early-stage discoveries right out of the lab. This is especially true for many drugs and compounds developed by basic researchers, which require more time and investment to develop and thus have become riskier licensing propositions.

One alternative used by Tech Transfer is making deals to receive in-kind services or benefits from industry, as opposed to cash. “In this scenario, the industry benefits by investing fewer dollars, while the researcher still gets some resources to help make the product commercially viable,” Blakeslee says. In one recent arrangement, a company received a license from Hopkins in return for paying patenting costs and providing very expensive equipment to the inventor’s laboratory at or below cost.

Another approach involves packaging compatible technologies, such as new drugs and drug-delivery systems. “We recently created a startup with a local venture capital partner that allowed us to include technology from another university,” Blakeslee says. “The formation of this new company would not have been possible using the technologies separately.”

As the strategies have evolved, so too have the attitudes of faculty toward working with the private sector.

“We’ve reached a point where the word entrepreneurship is no longer taboo at Hopkins,” says Aris Melissaratos, Hopkins’ senior advisor for enterprise development.

Of course, he and Blakeslee know that Tech Transfer needs the full support of Hopkins researchers for continued success. “One of our goals is to get our boots on the ground and meet more regularly with the different departments,” to get early information on potentially licensable ideas, says Blakeslee, “but the faculty need to feel they can contact us at any time as well. We can help them determine if they have an invention or a potential startup and even help them make contact with a potential funding partner.”

Those who feel hesitant can take a cue from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which has long had an entrepreneurial spirit. Possible patent applications are discussed at almost every faculty meeting, while BME’s annual Design Day, which highlights student inventions (with many industry folks in attendance), imprints the importance of business at the student level.

BME Director Elliot McVeigh notes that his department has recently brought on an industrial liaison to help with technology transfer requests. “Getting a single point of contact between our two offices makes things far simpler,” he says.

--Nick Zagorski

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