From the Director: Emory OTT Celebrates 30 Years!

Thirty years ago technology transfer was just an experiment. The theory was that a lot of innovation was coming out of federal funded research, but it was all owned by the federal government and sitting on their shelves. So the country embarked upon a pretty novel approach outlined in the Bayh-Dole Act – putting ownership of these innovations in the hands of the university. That birthed the profession of technology transfer.

Over the years, there has been a paradigm shift in the field. When I started 25 years ago, tech transfer professionals were really just transactional support staff. As tech transfer professionals we could help get a patent filed, market a technology, and negotiate an agreement. Today we are now expected to also be value creators. With every day, every week, every month that we work on a technology its value should continue to increase as we do things to help reduce risk and increase potential viability.

Todd Sherer, Exec Director Photograph

Todd Sherer, Exec Director

Another significant shift in the field has focused on how start-ups are spun out from the University. Originally the accepted practice was that in order to spinout a start-up the faculty member had to leave the institution and go run that start-up. What we as a profession have learned over the past 20 or so years is that’s not generally a best practice. Most of the time the best course is for the technology transfer office to run a dating service and introduce prospective management to the start-up, so that business people can run the new business while our scientists stay at the university and continue to conduct world class research.

Today we have arrived at a point in time where as a profession we are dealing with the consequences of our success. We have become an accepted part of the academic culture. The biggest challenges have been to manage expectations around a business model that involves high risk, high reward activity. Now, everyone has expectations about technology transfer and commercialization, even people who don’t really understand it. This success has led to expectations around creating jobs and getting new technology to the market in a way that it hasn’t before.

A TTO comes of age …

Thirty years ago here at Emory the seeds of technology transfer began fairly simply with no dedicated staff but rather through another existing office, the Office of Sponsored Programs, and perhaps under the infamous moniker of “other duties as assigned”. Since that inauspicious beginning the office has evolved significantly to become a well-known and sophisticated technology transfer program.

In the last ten years alone Emory’s tech transfer office has doubled in size and in activity. In 2003 the office was a staff of eight and today we are a staff of over 17. The number of invention disclosures and patent filings has doubled and although agreements and other types of licensees haven’t doubled, they have increased significantly. Additional resources have allowed the office to evolve in specialized areas like deal-making, marketing, pursuing patents, and post-licensing compliance, all enabling us to grow into a premier organization. Those are activities you couldn’t focus on in the past as part of a smaller office.

At Emory, there has been a number of significant new products that have reached the market and the university has generated over $845,000 million in licensing revenue. That revenue is important because it helps support, build, and invest in scientific research and education. You can’t have a strong program in technology transfer without investing in research.

In my view, I believe strongly that our success as a program centers on the number of products that have reached the market with our assistance. The ultimate validation for any technology transfer office is products on the market. Everybody likes to talk about patents filed and licenses negotiated, but that really isn’t the end justification for technology transfer. It’s completing the cycle of investing in research and having that effort improve people’s lives.

We hope you will join us throughout the year as we celebrate 30 years of Emory innovation by highlighting ground-breaking research that has come through our office and how it has positively impacted lives. We will also share stories and milestones from the office that were steps on our path to becoming the premier program we are today. Watch this blog site for a series of posts, one each month, highlighting important “firsts.” There will also be anniversary posts on our Twitter (hashtag #OTT30) and Facebook accounts. Finally, check out this new section on our website dedicated to our 30th anniversary.