Road to Technology Transfer
Career Story Blog Post By Weimin Kaufman, PhD, Licensing Manager at UR Ventures
When we were little kids, we seemed to know exactly what we wanted to do or to become when we grew up. Now that we have grown up, it turns out that it is so much easier to figure out what we don’t want to do or to be. As a graduate student or a postdoc in the life science space, the professional prospect now is not as straightforward as it had seemed. Professorship has become a rather rare event when compared to all the other career choices out there. Because of various reasons I will talk about later in this blog post, I decided to leave the bench in the lab after two short postdoc trainings. I hope the story of my career choice thus far can be an inspiration to you in exploring careers away from the bench. Every venture needs a plan, whether to guide its business operation or to present it to investors for raising capital. So do we as individuals! Our career is our own venture. I believe that every one of us needs a guiding plan -- not one engraved in stone -- but rather, a plan that evolves as we advance professionally.
I went to Berlin, Germany for my Ph.D. studies. During those five years, I came to the realization that doing science was an intelligent and respectable endeavor. However, it is hard work, too. I was prepared to come to the States, where the best science in the world was, and still is, conducted. While I was writing my dissertation, I applied for postdocs positions, which were the only possibility for me to come to the States. However, my overall goal at that time was to become a staff scientist at a biotech/pharmaceutical company, making decent money and having an easy science career without constantly seeking grant money. Postdoc became the perfect stepping stone to achieve my long-term goal. At that time, I had to coordinate with my boyfriend regarding where the positions would be. In the end, I arrived at University of Illinois in Chicago; he landed at Northwestern University. I was exploring job perspectives in industry; however, my visa situation was a roadblock, so I had to table my goal for a bit longer. I decided to improve my English and gather more experiences in independent scientific thinking during the transition. I also used that time to get married and to get my family life started as I entered my 30s. After a year and a half in Chicago, I moved to Rochester with my then husband. Luckily, my green card arrived shortly after I moved to Rochester -- and so did my older daughter. I increasingly realized that life at the bench was not what I wanted. I started exploring other options, talking to neighbors, friends, mentors, and others’ parents. During the exploration, I came across a book called “Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower” by Cynthia Robbins-Roth. She introduced about a dozen different career options that people with Ph.D. degrees have held with a great sense of fulfillment. They ranged from Regulatory Affairs, Medical/Science/Technical Writing, Editing, Venture Capital, Investment Banking, Science and Public Policy, Technology Transfer, Business Development, Patent Law, Corporate Communications, to Entrepreneur/Company Founder. I read about them all despite the fact that I did not fully understand some of the jobs. I used the method of exclusion to eliminate the options that were not suited for me, either because of the nature of the job or because of geographic limitations. In the end, two options were left in front of me, Regulatory Affairs and Technology Transfer. The next step was action. I started hunting down people who knew about these two areas and looking for internship opportunities. I quickly secured an internship at the Office of Tech Transfer at the URMC. My Postdoc supervisor was very supportive of my decision. I also tried to maximize my effort in the lab in order to squeeze out the time needed at the OTT. After the first week interning at the OTT, I already knew I liked it far better than working at the bench. At the end of the five-month internship, I started looking for jobs at OTTs in the region. It happened to be at the cusp of the economic downturn, with hiring freezes at many companies, including many departments at universities, with URMC OTT being one of them. The OTT at Cornell University obtained an exemption, and I breezed through the interview process and I got the job. That is how I entered the field of academic technology transfer.
Technology transfer is at the juncture of science, business, patent law, and contracting. It can be daunting in the beginning, but it is a job that you can learn on the fly and gain valuable experience each day. There is not a typical work day: what I do each day can be very different. The science part involves interactions with researchers and understanding their discoveries, which can be a novel target they identified in a biological pathway, a better way to predict disease occurrences, a new chemical compound to treat a disease, or a medical device. This aspect of the job heavily relies on my years of training as a scientist. However, I don’t need to dig deep down to the nitty-gritty of the science. What I need to know is how novel the invention is and how a product can be derived from it. Proper patent protection is often sought for technologies that are novel and have commercial potentials. I work with both patent attorneys and researchers during the patent application drafting process. I would be the interpreter to translate patent languages for the researchers both during this initial patenting process and more importantly, during the later patent prosecution process; meanwhile, I also act as the messenger for the patent attorney to get necessary documentations in place from the researchers. Learning the basics of patent law was thus necessary for me to effectively facilitate this process. Another aspect of the job is business development. I want to get these technologies out of the university to the hands of industry partners because the researchers normally don’t have the capacity to develop the technology into an actual product, drug, or diagnostic assay. Staying abreast of the industry trends and the latest discoveries is crucial for me to know who are the active industrial players in the space. I also conduct market research to identify prospective companies that might be interested in licensing the University’s intellectual property. Next, I contact the business development divisions at various prospective companies to promote our technologies or other assets. In this process, I act as the liaison between our office and the company to gather relevant scientists or business people on the phone for in-depth discussions before any decisions can be made by the company, either moving forward with a business transaction or terminating the conversation at some point. If we proceed with a partnership with the company, I will be involved in contract negotiation along with attorneys. Clearly, the job being a tech transfer professional is diverse, exciting, and challenging. There is nothing better to describe my job than “jack-of-all trades.” Since every technology is unique and every company I deal with is also different, each project presents different challenges and in the meantime, provides a different learning experience. This is what excites me the most. Additionally, learning all the cutting-edge technologies and interacting with brilliant scientists are equally rewarding. Technology transfer is certainly a career choice I encourage graduate students or postdocs to explore if a science career away from the bench is in consideration