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Employing graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in technology transfer groups

Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows today are exploring more career opportunities as an alternative to tenure-track positions. At Columbia University, we offer fellowships in our technology transfer office (TTO) to help train and nurture graduate students and postdocs who may become the next generation of bioentrepreneurs, while providing important services to technology transfer offices and teaching business skills to graduate students and postdocs. Columbia Technology Ventures (CTV; New York) established a fellows program, which provides useful experience to students at a reasonable cost to CTV. It's a rare win-win. We outline our experience here in the hope that other schools may learn from our experience.

Today's tech transfer challenges

Technology transfer groups face many challenges in a rapidly shifting environment. Hospitals, universities, and research centers conduct a great deal of research that generates innovations to improve our lives. From 1990 to 2015, US universities processed >380,000 invention disclosures, filed >206,000 patent applications, received >84,000 issued patents, and executed over 37,000 licenses and options—as well as establishing >10,000 startups1 (across all sectors, including the life sciences). However, even at the highest-performing tech transfer offices, a vast majority of university patents still fail to get licensed. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the challenges of assessing market potential for such early-stage scientific breakthroughs; the difficulty in attracting the attention of potential industry and venture capital partners; and the expense associated with maintaining these patents over time (Fig. 1). These challenges are compounded by the fact that tight university budgets mean that most TTOs are thinly staffed, making it difficult for the full-time employees to effectively evaluate, market, and negotiate the volume of potential opportunities

Figure 1: Columbia's “% Chance of a Patent Getting Licensed”, 1982 to 2016
Figure 1

At the same time, graduate students and postdoctoral scientists are finding full-time academic research roles—especially academic, tenure-track roles—relatively scarce. While training programs have traditionally prepared scientists for tenure-track research positions in academia, studies indicate that the supply of tenure-track positions is imbalanced when compared to the number of doctorate-degree holders2. For example, a new US biological science PhD graduate in the early 1970s had a greater than 50% chance to secure a tenure-track job within six years of completing their degree, with a 2% chance of being in an untenured academic role3. By the mid-2000s, the odds of securing a tenure-track job within six years after graduating dropped to 15%4. Additionally, as graduate students progress through their PhDs, their interest in academic careers sometimes wanes, with some citing long work hours, the challenges of funding, the slow pace of research, and the intense competition for tenure5 as reasons for flagging interest. Finally, academic training today may not always prepare these students for careers outside the ivory tower, and winning positions in industry or at startups may be challenging6.

Launching the program

CTV started its fellows program in 2006 with four students. Initially, the idea was to experiment with having graduate students assist the licensing teams on specific projects where their scientific background could be best used. We quickly put this internship program together, but it was unstructured and required a great deal of supervision. We realized, over time, that with appropriate training and encouragement, fellows could be put to broader and more productive use, for their own, and for the TTO's, benefit.

Fellows are trained in competitive assessment, analysis of patent prior art, marketing, and other skills. Once their training is complete, they are responsible for writing an initial standardized four-page business and intellectual property (IP) assessment for the nearly 400 new inventions received by CTV each year. They are also responsible for creating internal marketing materials and keywords for each invention, for drafting e-mail campaigns aimed at industry and venture investors, for helping write business plans for potential startups, and even for doing infringement analyses when required.

As of 2017, CTV employs more than 30 fellows at a time, with roughly 65% coming from life science disciplines. (This percentage is approximately the same as the percentage of inventions stemming from the life sciences that CTV receives each year.) In addition, our network of >200 fellows alumni have found employment in sectors such as venture capital, industry, tech transfer, patent law, consulting, and banking.

We accomplished this by assigning just one full-time employee from our operations team to oversee the program. Management of the fellows program was just one part of this employee's responsibilities. And as the program has progressed we have found that senior fellows—the most experienced and highest performing students—can do most of the day-to-day management of other fellows, thereby picking up management experience in addition to their other tasks. All this is done at minimal cost to CTV. We compensate fellows at $25 per hour, and they carry an average workload of 100 h per year.

Organization and task flow

To make the fellows program work, we need exceptional candidates, and our hiring process has evolved to focus on six general criteria (Table 1). After hiring, fellows are trained on the work streams used by CTV's model of university technology transfer. Our standard work stream falls into three general categories (Table 2).

Table 1: General criteria for hiring a tech transfer fellow
Table 2: Types of assignments completed by CTV fellows to help patent, market, and license technologies from Columbia University

The director of the fellows program facilitates development and training, guides the direction of the program, manages the human resources aspects, and works with licensing officers, fellows, and senior management to assess the needs of the office and determine how to effectively and efficiently implement the suggested changes. Within the program, the managing senior fellow leads the team. This person receives assignments from the director and the licensing offices, and after monthly portfolio decision meetings. Unless an assignment is especially urgent, the managing senior fellow triages the assignments based on priority and on the demonstrated strengths (technical field, workflow performance) of the fellows available. Each standard assignment has a one-week turnaround, with an average work time of four hours. Fellows can expect two tasks a month on average.

After a fellow submits his/her work, a senior fellow has one week to edit the work and request corrections. When complete, the assignment is sent to the responsible TTO licensing officer for review. Licensing officers have one week to approve the work or provide comments and request edits.

When technology assessments are returned they are stored in the CTV database and circulated to the potential inventors and counsel to help aid the patent and marketing strategy. Technology briefs are also stored in the CTV database and are ported to the CTV website (http://innovation.columbia.edu).

Active marketing campaigns take a different route, flowing through the senior and associate marketing fellows for processing. Campaign briefs and an introductory e-mail are sent to the identified companies, with tracking. A follow-up campaign is launched ten days later to address any of the initial unopened e-mails. Marketing statistics reports are issued to the licensing officer two weeks after launch to help aid future marketing or patent decisions. Special projects and business intelligence are the bespoke suit of the program, with each project being customized to the needs of the TTO licensing officer and the stage of negotiation. The senior special projects fellow reviews and manages the fellows' work products, which can vary from comparable-deal research to preliminary patent assertion scans.

Improving TTOs

TTOs gain several benefits by adopting this kind of program. By far the most important is the ability to tap into a large and varied pool of subject-matter experts. Given the breadth of life science inventions emerging from modern research universities (therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, imaging, genomics, bioinformatics, sequencing, advanced materials, and tissue engineering, just to name a few), it would be nearly impossible for full-time TTO staff to remain experts in all areas. But a university has its share of talented and driven graduate students and postdocs at the cutting edge of their fields; TTOs would be wise to bring those talents to bear.

This has helped produce several follow-on benefits for the CTV office. With the fellows taking on a portion of the routine analytical and marketing work, our licensing team members can spend more time fostering relationships with researchers and identifying commercialization leads for our technology portfolio. Additionally, CTV can now ask deeper questions with more input, such as, What is the commercial potential of a technology? Or, which company will license the rights to which innovation? Or, are a researcher's findings strong enough to launch a spin-off?

Looking at the data CTV has generated since 2014, we found our program averages >300 assessments, 200 technology briefs, and 100 marketing campaigns per year. In addition to the above benefits, during the past four years, the fellows' contributions have directly led to eight licensing deals through targeted marketing campaigns and indirectly to another eight through passive marketing on our website. Finally, CTV gains from having such strong and diversified talent contributing to its output at a relatively lower cost to traditional staff; the hourly rate for fellows is substantially lower than that of a TTO licensing officer.

Training and mentoring

Fellows benefit by developing a wider set of business skills. Fellows first learn to digest and evaluate proposed technologies by completing technology assessments. As these technologies are patented, fellows then learn to identify the value proposition of new technologies and how to best communicate that value to potential licensees by writing technology briefs. As fellows mature, they also learn how to best distill data into true insight.

We train the fellows in two three-hour sessions, which are primarily led by the senior fellows. The first session familiarizes the new members with technology transfer, the patent process, our task management system, and our model of technology assessment. The second session focuses on the fundamentals of creating a technology marketing brief and producing potential company lists for active marketing campaigns, along with an introduction to the various types of special projects that may be requested. These new trainees are instructed to view a selection of our online video resources, review sections of previous training presentations, and prepare related assignments before the in-person training.

Senior fellows oversee the assignments, reviewing and returning them with corrections and suggestions. Common errors and challenges found in the reviews are used as discussion points for the in-person training. Internal counsel and licensing officers are invited to the training sessions to address questions and provide perspective on the importance of the various projects.

After two or three rounds of assignments and mentor review, the new hires are put in the regular rotation. After two to three months, they are formally evaluated and those that have improved and meet CTV's standards are promoted to full fellows. Fellows continue to be evaluated on a bi-annual schedule on their way to becoming senior fellows.

Since 2006, our fellows program has provided >200 graduate students with a business, technology, and IP toolkit. This expanded range of capabilities helps graduate students consider their career options earlier in their graduate student careers and enables them to explore a wider range of career opportunities. We've had fellows pursue careers in consulting, law, venture capital, industry, and the next generation of biotech startups, as well as in tech transfer (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Fields of employment for CTV fellows program alumni (clockwise, starting with 15% for Academia
Figure 2

In addition, some of our fellows have joined the founding teams of their own startup companies, many of which raised venture funding, including QuiO (New York), Ironic Chemicals (Fairfield, CT, USA), Lumiode (New York), and Epibone (Brooklyn, NY, USA).

Conclusions

We have compiled all materials required to start and run a fellows program and have shared them widely so other universities aren't forced to reinvent the wheel to launch their own programs. More than 20 universities have launched programs based on the Columbia model, including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Los Angeles, and Harvard, as well as universities overseas and non-university entities (e.g., Allied Minds).

But that isn't to say every institution should implement such a program. The decision should depend on a variety of factors.

Budget. Consider the needs of your TTO, the number of hours a fellow can be reasonably expected to work, the pay of other potential employment a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow may be able to take, the cost of additional resources you may wish to have to enable deeper research, a training budget, and the costs of a community or team building component.

Diversity of scientific disciplines. Know your portfolio. If possible, try to hire talent that mimics your disclosure ratios. It's good to challenge the fellows, but don't set them up for failure.

Can your program attract strong talent? Attend department meetings and events or innovation-related classes. Reach out to affinity groups and student clubs, place fliers in student centers and libraries, the business and law schools. Do not limit the possibilities and trust in the hiring process to capture the best-qualified candidates for your needs.

Degree of entrepreneurial energy on campus. If students aren't interested in the process of technology transfer, you cannot staff the program.

The CTV fellowship program gives Columbia graduate students and postdoctoral fellows hands-on experience working on early-stage technology assessments, writing marketing abstracts, and preparing marketing campaigns. From our early beginning in 2006 with four graduate students, the fellows program has grown to >30 current fellows and >200 alumni, and it is still an important component of CTV today. Without the fellows program, CTV would be unable to support the wide range and volume of programs that it does today.

References

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    AUTM. Statistics Access for Tech Transfer (STATT) Database (Association of University Technology Managers, 2017).

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    , , , & Nat. Biotechnol. 36, 197–202 (2018).

  3. 3.

    , , , & Nature 472, 276–279 (2011).

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    National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Doctorate Recipients from US Universities: 2014. NSF Special Report 16–300 (National Science Foundation, Arlington, 2015).

  5. 5.

    Nature 475, 533–535 (2011).

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    & Nat. Biotechnol. 35, 113–116 (2017).

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to acknowledge M. Elliott, B. Butterfield, J. Hayden, B. Rauw, and all current and previous CTV Fellows for making this work possible.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Columbia Technology Ventures, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu
    • , Elizabeth Beerman
    •  & Orin Herskowitz
  2. Department of Chemical Engineering, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu
  3. Academic Venture Exchange, New York, New York, USA, and Innovation Accelerator Foundation, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

    • Ahmet-Hamdi Cavusoglu

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Competing interests

A.-H.C. is employed by Academic Venture Exchange, New York, New York, USA, and Innovation Accelerator Foundation, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Orin Herskowitz.