From the Director: COVID-19’s Impact on Technology Transfer

Share with your network

Todd Sherer, PhD is the Associate VP for Research and Executive Director of the Emory Office of Technology Transfer. In this article, Todd Sherer discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the technology transfer industry and on the Emory Office of Technology Transfer specifically.

Humankind has longed for better ways of doing things for centuries.  More recently, this phenomenon to make products that solve problems, as well as to create jobs and wealth, has been termed the “innovation economy”.  The demand for technology innovation is global, and there is always the desire to make people healthier and happier. However, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic came with a new sense of urgency that dramatically changed the way technology innovation happens. The pandemic provided glaring examples of how a sense of urgency arising from a sense of fear could have a positive impact on funding and the acceleration of timelines for bringing new products to market.

“That is exciting because it has torn down some of the traditional and conventional thinking around timeline and investments. We realize now that things can — and should — move faster,” said Todd Sherer, the Executive Director of the Emory Office of Technology Transfer. “It is maddening that all life-saving therapies don’t move as fast as the COVID therapies,” he said.

Todd Sherer Photo

Todd Sherer, PhD, CLP, RTTP

One of the major adjustments for the Emory Office of Technology Transfer during the pandemic is that work went completely remote. “Technology transfer and commercialization are things that rely heavily on human contact,” explained Sherer, “People talking to other people, meeting other people, those connections and collisions are critically important for making the system work.” Emory OTT, much like other offices globally, was concerned about whether they could work effectively to commercialize new innovations with a fully remote workforce. “I think we proved that yes, we can,” Sherer said.

Another major change in the profession was the increased sense of urgency for innovations related to COVID-19, such as therapeutics and diagnostics. Pandemic-related innovations were prioritized during this time to accelerate their development. Although there were financial challenges that arose in technology transfer during the pandemic, there were also record levels of funds made available from the federal government to help push innovation forward.

Staff retention and recruitment experienced challenges during this time as well, as the pandemic created a very unstable job market. “It hit us in technology transfer the same way that it hit the rest of the world. We are all being impacted by this period of the great resignation,” said Sherer.

“Technology transfer provides good background training on intellectual property and how new ideas get moved to the marketplace,” explained Sherer, “One of the things we are doing at Emory to encourage staff retention is creating hybrid work environments.”  This makes it easier for offices to retain and recruit staff because potential employees often want that flexibility that a remote environment provides. Another thing OTT is focused on to boost staff retainment is encouraging people to rebalance their work and personal lives. Throughout the pandemic, people have become tired and burnt out and are looking for ways to better balance their professional and personal lives.

What technology transfer witnessed and experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic proved that it was possible to find funding and accelerated timelines for commercializing new innovations. The challenge moving forward is to push more technologies down an accelerated path. There are countless other diseases and afflictions that could benefit from similar accelerated funding and timelines. “It is imperative that we find new solutions for them too,” Sherer said. The hope for the future of technology transfer is to apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to improve the future of technology commercialization.