Intern: Leaving Academia but not Science

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Like most fresh PhD students entering graduate school, I had the desire to become an independent investigator after graduating. As my graduate and postgraduate training in the life science proceeds, my passion for pursuing a career in academia starts to fade. After devoting most of my 20s to basic scientific research, I’m eager to participate in the phases after scientific discovery.

The turning point came while submitting my postdoctoral fellowship applications. Although my research proposal was ultimately funded it was turned down by five funding agencies. I was exhausted by the year-long fellowship process. I realized then that I wouldn’t be happy if applying for funding eventually becomes one of the routines of my career. Hesitantly, I made a decision to gradually drag my feet outside the realm of academia. To come up with a strategic retreat-and-revive plan, I joined the Atlanta BEST program, a NIH-funded training program designed to help “confused” PhD students and academia quitters like me. Through one of the career exploration workshops, I learned about technology transfer and the internship program offered by the Emory OTT. I immediately became interested because I realized that technology transfer is one of the few non-academic career paths where my PhD training in life science is really valued. I submitted my application to the internship program without hesitation, and luckily enough, I survived the interview process and joined the 2016-2017 cohort of interns.

My journey at the OTT started with a five-module training boot camp, through which I became familiar with intellectual property management in a university setting. Equipped with the basic knowledge, I started my rotation with different licensing associates, drafting Commercialization Evaluation Reports on Emory invention disclosures under their guidance. I enjoyed the process of quickly grasping the gist of an invention (step 1), precisely identifying its market value (step 2) and thoroughly evaluating the intellectual property (IP) landscape (step 3). Although the market analysis and prior art search are relatively new to me, I was able to relate these tasks to my literature search experience in scientific research. My weekly discussions with the licensing associates provided timely feedback to my workflow and enabled me to work more efficiently. I treated every invention disclosure like my own research project because I appreciated the creative mindset and hard work driving the innovation. During my internship, I have worked on 25+ invention disclosures, covering a rich array of scientific fields, including pharma compositions, diagnostics and therapeutics, medical devices, research tools, and software. Roaming through different research topics is a lot of fun.

As I became more experienced with IP management, I started to shadow the licensing associates on other aspects of their daily duties, including licensing contract preparation and negotiation, IP portfolio management, and due-diligence monitoring. Notably, the most mind-opening experience came from attending the weekly TMM meetings, where the licensing team discusses invention disclosures and makes decisions on management and commercialization strategies. When there are different opinions on the strategic plan for an invention, the team discussions are always channeled back to the fundamental guiding principles of the OTT, i.e., promoting the impact of federally funded research and maximizing public benefit. I ended up learning a lot of practical knowledge in university IP management from these in-depth team discussions. Furthermore, the “Lunch & Learn” training series of the internship program is another great way to gain knowledge of licensing in a university setting. The selected AUTM webinars in the training series are heavily focused on the basics of contracting.

Over the past few years, I have witnessed many of my fellow PhD colleagues say goodbye to life science due to the challenging job market. Many of them abandoned their training in life science and made career transitions to other industries where their PhD degree is not appreciated. I have also met many PhD graduates who were trapped in postdoctoral positions for years, struggling both financially and professionally. I feel extremely lucky to find a career path outside academia but still close to science. What I like most about the technology transfer career is the timely access to new scientific discoveries and the dynamic job duties. I am ready to embrace the challenges in this career, which require knowledge and experience in science, marketing, IP law, and project management.

The technology transfer framework laid out by the Bayh-Dole Act has been a successful driver of economic growth and modeled by many other countries. Graduating from a top undergraduate institution in China, I am aware of the lack of respect for intellectual property as well as the inadequacy of regulation on university IP management in my home country. Lagging behind often means more room for improvement. Another motivation for me to launch a career in technology transfer comes from my willingness to promote the advanced university IP management system in the U.S. to other countries when given the opportunity.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude for the training provided by the OTT internship program as well as the guidance from every licensing associate that I worked with.

–       Jiafeng “Jeff” Geng