Marc Sedam is the vice-president, technology opportunities and ventures, at New York University where he sits within NYU Langone Health. But his team is also responsible for tech transfer on NYU’s overseas campuses, and Sedam tells us about the challenges this poses.
Sedam talks about why his team hired an analyst for its venture fund and he discusses what it takes to be an ally — from making sure job adverts are posted in places where minorities will actually see them and arranging office hours at a time that’s convenient for women all the way to setting up an equity, diversity and inclusion committee at AUTM that reports directly to the board.
He also tells us why, if it’s ever appropriated, the funding for tech transfer offices in the CHIPS and Science Act could prove truly transformational for the US economy.
Find out, too, what he learned when he moved from the tech transfer office at UNC-Chapel Hill into one of their spinouts.
Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.
Marc, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having me.
I look forward to chatting with you to start with hopefully an easy one.
Can you give me an overview of commercialisation at NYU with some headline figures?
Sure. By most metrics, NYU is now and has historically been one of the most productive tech transfer institutions in the country. Over time, since the inception of the office, we’ve generated over $3bn in royalties, over 200 companies, hundreds, thousands of licences.
Just last year for the headlines, we did 78 licenses, 12 startups, which was a relatively slow year for us for lots of reasons that we can talk about. We’re at about $115m in royalty income, which included a large lump sum payment involved in that.
So, you know, things are great, but there’s always a lot of room to grow in a place this big. I’m sure we’ll talk about that in a little bit.
Where do you fit into the larger entrepreneurship infrastructure at NYU?
Man, I would like to say we’re central to it, but I’m not sure that’s true. So my favourite things I like to tell people when I got here was the vice-provost for research at Washington Square — I’ll explain our campus setup in a second — she gave me a spreadsheet that she had collected and on it were something like 105 programmes, classes, activities, exercises that had either the word innovation or entrepreneurship in them, sometimes both.
So NYU is the largest private university in the United States. We have $1.2bn in research, so we are just massive. And so what I’d like to think is there’s a little bit of a hub and a spokes system here. So when it has to do with university IP — even if it’s not university-owned — but when it has to do with IP enabled startups, and that can include works of scholarship and authorship as well, that we sort of sit at the centre of that because we’re the stewards classically of the university’s intellectual property.
But with those other 104 ideas that are kicking around the institution, a lot of our role is to sometimes be cheerleaders, sometimes to be a little bit of a traffic cop to make sure that people are going in the right direction, but always to be supportive and to enable what other people want to do. And so we use phrase a lot that I call serve the idea.
We think more about the idea itself and where the idea needs to go. And then what’s the role that we have to play? As your listeners are probably aware of, sometimes we disagree with other people about what that role is and what it should enable. But that’s part of the fun of the job.
So that’s kind of how I look at what we do is we take in all comers. We’re happy to work with anybody else. But again, on the classic note, if it’s institutional intellectual property, whether people feel like it is or isn’t or should or shouldn’t be, that’s where we sit in the primary role in the institution.
Yeah. You’ve mentioned one of your campuses there, Washington Square. What I find quite interesting is that you’re also responsible for overseas campuses.
What is that set up like? What are the opportunities or any challenges around being responsible for something in a completely different time zone?
Yeah, well, you know, and sometimes overseas is the East River for our campus in Brooklyn. So let me explain a little bit how we’re set up.
Again, it’s a massive institution. There are three New York City based campuses. So there is Washington Square, which is when you think about NYU, you think about Washington Square. We’ve all seen the TV shows and the movies are at the Washington Square arch. The campus surrounds there where my daughter is a freshman, actually.
Then there’s the medical school, which sits on First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan on the East River. And that is again, a giant medical complex called NYU Langone Health. And what was once unique and is now starting to happen more frequently is our healthcare system and our medical school kind of overlap each other. So the CEO of the healthcare system, Dr Bob Grossman, is also the dean of the medical school.
And so that itself is a massive enterprise of something like $11bn. And even if people are inventing or innovating in the healthcare system that are not in the medical school, we still manage their ideas as well because they’re sort of captured into here. So some clinicians and practitioners, then that can be its own rodeo, which is really interesting.
Over in Brooklyn is the Tandon School of Engineering, which used to be called Brooklyn Polytech that NYU took over about 12 or 13 years ago. And again, a very large engineering school, one of the oldest engineering schools in the country where we see a lot of the, we’ll talk later about the CHIPS Act, where we see a
lot of that in engineering and quantum.
Now I can go and cross the pond and we have in one direction, if you go over the Atlantic, we have NYU Abu Dhabi. It’s a 2,000 student university. It is a college technically of NYU. So most of the time, when you think of that overseas campus, it’s a small 200 or 300 students, they’re studying in the classroom. NYU Abu Dhabi is different and that is a research-enabled institution. It’s a degree-granting institution as well, so you’d get a degree from NYU Abu Dhabi, but they do put $50m or $60m in research.
A lot of it comes from their federal government as we get from ours, but some of it is in collaboration with us in the States, NIH funding, NSF funding. It is a unique ecosystem because it gives you a beachhead into the MENA region, which is really interesting for sort of a US university.
And I think I’m going to say this, though, I’m not sure. We may be the only university that has someone in another country who is still working for the mothership. So we have a full-time employee in NYU Abu Dhabi working on that campus, but reporting into my office. So it’s not a separate tech transfer office. It’s not a separate operation. It actually reports into here, so managing those time zones is interesting.
And then finally, if you go over the other ocean, or you can keep going farther if you want to fly in the same direction is NYU Shanghai, which is a partnership with a Chinese university that works a little bit more traditionally like a US branch in an international location, although they do a reasonable amount of research into quantum computing.
So yeah, it’s a lot. And there are different policies, there are different implementations of policies. We do try to get everybody to sing from the same hymnal, although it doesn’t always work — most of the time for good reasons, meaning that work doesn’t apply in country of origin X. The US side tends to all work relatively the same, although there are some nuances between our med school IP policy and our Washington Square and Tandon IP policies.
I don’t envy you having to find meeting times with people in three different continents.
I think I have eight different time zones in my world clock on my phone that I look at a couple of times a week at least.
You are still fairly new to NYU, you joined not that long ago. Did you have any preconceived notions about what you would find before you joined? And what did you find?
That’s a great question because I’m not sure. I mean, I knew NYU reputationally, which was of course excellent. We had one of the home runs of all time. In fact, up until the covid vaccines from a tech transfer practice, you know, Remicade
was one of the largest home runs, grand slams, the way you want to look at it in global tech transfer history, generating $2.5bn of income over the years. So we had the home run.
And so a very prolific organisation, Abram Goldfinger, Sadhana Chitale, Bob Fechter, who are here and are still here, thankfully, some of the finest people doing this work in the world, just technically proficient, really creative, really excellent people doing the job.
Although I would say I knew it mainly because as a former chair of AUTM, which we’ll probably talk about at some point, you know, I’m just paying attention to the numbers. I pay attention to the ecosystem. But what I would say is NYU wasn’t the place that came to the tip of your tongue when you thought of… somebody said list the best, the top five or the top 10 tech transfer offices. I think it deserved to be in that conversation, but I don’t know that it was often in that conversation.
And so partly when I came here was to figure out why and how could we pull this institution into a more prominent place, not because we need the PR, we don’t, but really to make sure that our faculty, staff, researchers, scholars, understand the capacity we have to help them with their ideas.
And I will say, you know, that is probably the one place that I did find was true was when I came here, I think the staff had a lot on their plate. There’s a lot to do. They were focused, incredibly focused on getting deals done and serving the faculty, but I don’t think they were a resource to be able to serve a $1.2bn ecosystem.
And so I’ve been here for 18 months. I’ve report in the med school, my supervisor is Dan Widawsky. He’s the chief financial officer of NYU Langone Health. And he already started to bring additional resources in. He’s given me a lot of flexibility to invest in the places that I think will lead to us achieving scale over time.
And so really, since I’ve been here, I know it’s trite, but I think of things in terms of systems, structures, and functions. And so if your systems are weak, it’s hard for you to have structure around the systems. If your structure is weak, it’s hard for you to really operate at scale and efficiently. And so really, even though it’s boring, over the last 18 months, I’ve often said I’ve been renovating and lifting the house up off the foundation, rebuilding the foundation, and dropping the organisation back down onto it.
So our data systems are much better. Our transparency of data is much better. Our ability to allow technology to work for us instead of against us is much better. And of course, we’ve been hiring like crazy. We’ve doubled the size of the staff in the last year.
I mean, but within the first year, we had doubled the size of the staff. And we’ve got a lot of growth to go. But we’re just now starting to be able to keep our heads above water on a daily basis and continue to start to scale. And I can talk about some of those numbers if you want to at some point.
I quite like the analogy of coming in to renovate the house. It’s not starting from scratch. It’s building on something that’s there.
It would have been not only disrespectful, but a waste to try to like, knock it down and start over because we have real talent here that just needed to be enabled to do their job better.
One of the positions that you hired that I thought was quite interesting was an equity research analyst. I think you’re one of the only, if not the only tech transfer office in the US that has one.
I think we’re the only and maybe in the world. I’m not quite sure anybody has one of these. So this came from an early conversation with Dan Widawsky, the CFO, when we wanted to focus on research investments as one of the big areas that we were going to do well, because we have to be great at licensing.
We have to be great at IP. We can be great at those things, but that doesn’t necessarily differentiate us. What we don’t want to do is simply file patents and license things and call it a day. We want to really think about how can we proactively enable those ideas to be out in the world to benefit human health sometime.
We talk a lot about research investment. I know we’ll talk in a little bit about our venture fund. We have a $25m capped venture fund, which I operate on behalf of the institution. There’s checks and balances and committees and everything.
In fact, our meeting is tomorrow, so as soon as we’re done, I gotta finish our papers. So we had this money and we wanted to make investments, but how did we know we were doing a good job at choosing those investments wisely?
Obviously, we have excellent science, world-class researchers, but that’s not what the fund is supposed to do. The fund is supposed to be opportunistic. It’s not a translational research fund where you’re trying to raise all boats equally. It is an opportunistic fund where we’re trying to make investments that have an ability to get the 10x in return in three years like everybody else wants. So after we did this a couple of times, I had mentioned it’s really hard to do a good job at evaluating the ideas beyond our current framework because there’s just so much to do.
It was Dan’s… I’d love to take credit for it, but I only took credit for doing it, not for the idea. Dan looked at me and said, well, why don’t you hire an analyst to do the work? I said, well, can we? He said, sure. So that’s what we did.
One of the many benefits of being in New York is just an immense amount of talent in the city. Where would you choose to find talent in finance? You would choose New York City. We decided to do what the venture groups do. We hired an equity research analyst. His name is Dilip Joseph.
He comes out of Silicon Valley Bank. He had seven or eight years of experience doing Wall Street analysis on mid-cap life sciences firms. He comes in and he puts that external viewpoint on our science. What has been really transformative for us is we’re all evangelists about what we do, we love everybody equally, some a little bit better than others in terms of technology, but you can get blinded by the science a little bit. It’s great science, but is it a great business?
Dilip looks at it as, what does the market need? What are the gaps in the market? How do these ideas fit those gaps? We’ve made some really creative decisions on some of our investments because, in one instance, the idea itself was, I think, really good, but was on those border cases of whether you would invest in it. In looking at the rest of the world and recent successes and failures in market-based science, startup companies, people in the market, he said, actually, this science fits.
There is a gap in this technical field, and this science fits exactly in that gap. If it’s successful, it’s much more likely to be a market winner because it fits in a place where there is not direct competition.
Obviously, the space, the overall space has competition, but the application was very unique. We decided to make an investment in that idea solely based on that fact that that was a differentiating factor that we would have never seen otherwise. What’s really interesting about it is we create a six- to eight-page analysis document that we send to our advisory committee, that we send to the CFO. So, we have this document that lays out not just the IP, the idea, and the team, but the rest of the world in general.
A few times when we’ve worked with the venture community, they’ve come back to us and said, this is amazing because I feel like we’re peers now in this because you’re talking our language. You’re not just telling us how great the science is, and we’re telling you about what the market is.
We’re sort of already grumpy at each other because we’re taking it from a different perspective. You already share our perspective, so the conversations become easier. That’s been super fun and really transformative for us.
I imagine it’s much easier to then even approach another fund as well because you’ve already done the research. You can say, this is the market fit. You don’t have to necessarily rely on an external VC firm on doing that research themselves.
It does. I feel like in the end, when we have those discussions about size of commitment and what the university is looking for, I really do feel like we’re a little more like peers than – I don’t think of tech transfers as adversaries, but we obviously – we are the licensor and they are the licensee, right?
But in the evaluation of the opportunity, we are looking at it at the exact same time. We’ll have conversations with them about that analysis and say, what do you see here? What do you think that these are the right comps for this? What do you think about what the phase 2 data on these companies that are in our companies say and how does that read on to what we’re trying to do?
I find it to be a much more engaging conversation versus I would like 7% and you would like me to have 5%. That’s fine too, but I feel like we understand each other a little better.
That makes perfect sense. That’s fascinating as well. You’ve talked quite a bit about the fund just now. Your office also runs a range of other programmes. There’s Therapeutics Alliances, Biomedical Entrepreneurship Program, Medical Device Fund, and then of course the NYU Langone Health Venture Fund.
Can you tell me a little bit about your other initiatives as well?
Sure. Most of those existed before I got here, so I just want to be clear on that. Some of them were paused during covid as many people pause many things during covid, including it seems life itself for a little while.
What we try to do is have some catalytic money in the places that we need that. I’ll go in a slightly different order than you introduced them. Biomedical Entrepreneurship Program, which is run predominantly by Sadhana Chitale, who is now a board member elect to AUTM, which I’m really happy for her. That’s really about filling the pipeline.
That’s about having students, grad students and postdocs, getting them to understand what alternate paths of science are. Not that you don’t want to be a researcher, but researcher and innovator, researcher and entrepreneur, and really just kind of opening the funnel. Because most people get into their PhDs either to become a faculty member and repeat the process on the other side or to go into industry and do some work. But this opens them up to the multiple places that they can do. So I think of that as a funnel. We get a lot of our interns from that programme, which is lovely.
The Med device Fund and Therapeutic Alliances are similar versions of different ideas. Med devices are less expensive to bring to market, often more direct to bring to market. That’s a $300,000 fund to really do anything from we can enable a napkin drawing to be a prototype. We can take a prototype to its first manufacturer. We can fund those enabling studies, the value creation studies for a device to become something beyond the idea that’s in front of it.
Then Therapeutic Alliances is a really interesting programme. That’s $1m a year. This is a yes and, so it’s $300,000 in Med Devices and $25m in a venture fund and $1m in Therapeutic Alliances.
But Therapeutic Alliances is really about finding the early stage science and, again, doing those enabling studies that make an attractive commercial opportunity. We’re not necessarily going down the rabbit hole of saying, find the mechanism of action. We may go down the rabbit hole of, hey, this seems to work, can we do some medicinal chemistry on this? Can we do some early ADME-Tox studies on this? Can we do some solubility work to see if this is something that could be orally bioavailable?
Everybody in tech transfer around the world has seen really interesting science that is injectable. Of course, everybody’s first response, unless it’s a biologic, is like, oh, no, we don’t want to do that. But we might be able to say, hey, can we tweak chemistry for you working with CROs to see if we can make this orally bioavailable or not?
And so what it’s not is somebody who has perfectly well-formed science and investing in that next stage. That’s actually what the venture fund is for. What it is about those studies that the NIH doesn’t seem to fund, nobody seems to fund, even seed funds don’t seem to fund, but shortening the valley of death. And so we probably will do six to eight projects a year. We’re looking at evaluating that program really heavily to see if we shouldn’t have a larger
annual investment in that.
But we have to do a little bit better job of measuring where our investments went in the past before we decide to see if we need to sink some more money into that.
I’m sure there are folks listening, you’re probably watching, listening and saying, Marc, that sounds really great. And it’s amazing. I mean, it is amazing to have these kinds of resources.
My last position was at the University of New Hampshire, where I assure you, we did not have all those resources. They put the free in live free or die. The university is amazing, but they often just doesn’t view resourcing education as
a priority. And you come here and they’re saying, it’s all important and we have some resources and we’re willing to be aggressive to get our ideas out in the world because in the end, we’re trying to make the world a little bit better and one idea at a time. And so it’s an absolute wonder to be able to do that and do it well.
It kind of amazes me that because geographically, you haven’t moved that far. And it’s such a different world that you find yourself in in New York compared to New Hampshire.
Yeah, it’s only 300 miles. I travel it every week because my family is still in New Hampshire. I go home on Thursday nights and spend the weekends at home. But yeah, it couldn’t be any farther away in terms of opportunity and access and impact.
Is there anything else that you hope to build at NYU in future, any immediate plans or even long term hopes?
It’s hard to say given everything we have that there needs to be more things. But what I would say in general is that I think we want to really focus in on the research investment aspect of what we do and make sure we’re doing that incredibly well and that we’re making efficient use of these resources because we do and I recognise that we have a lot of resources.
But having a lot of resources doesn’t mean you’re making good decisions. It just means you have a lot of resources. So what I would say is what I’m trying to build now and into the future is evidence-based information so that we know if we’re making an investment in a particular place, are we tracking it? Are we guiding it? Are we helping it? Is there anything else that we can do to provide some wind under the wings of these ideas?
And I’m really heavily focused on just data, data, data. So I’m looking at our internal infrastructure and looking at our data and trying to evaluate it and pull it apart, put it together again. Where do we make decisions three years ago that lead to great opportunities today? How do we work backwards and try to make better decisions earlier on or more efficient decisions earlier on so that the pipeline becomes larger and larger?
What I would say, Thierry, is what I want to build is scale because at $1.2bn in research, if you follow the AUTM metrics, we should be seeing 500 or 600 disclosures a year across all the institutions. Right now, we see about 250. Which is, you know… so we’re at about half.
I’ve said we’re a high-performing car that hasn’t gotten out of third gear in a lot of ways because we make a meal out of everything we see. But there’s probably literally twice as much to see.
And so a lot of what I have to do is scale the front end of the process so that we can see everything that there is or as reasonably as we can get to and then just continue to do a good job from that point forward.
It’s interesting in that the goal is really, we have a supply side issue, which is we don’t have enough supply. We have plenty of things that we’ve done and do and will continue to do and it will look great, but we haven’t cracked the supply issue, which is what I’m really heavily focused on.
That is really interesting. Speaking of the supply chain, how does your faculty engagement fare in terms of women and minority founders? Do you track those numbers?
We are trying to track them now. So when I was on the AUTM board, the equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives were really just starting to be in full force. And I was one of the people that suggested for AUTM that the EDI committee report directly into the board.
So it was the first board committee in 40 years, like since the inception of AUTM, the EDI committee was the first board-level committee since the inception of the organisation to kind of make sure it’s up at that level. So we are trying to track those things. I would say on our licensing, it’s not bad. I don’t have all the data yet. I can only give you an anecdote to say, there is good representation from a gender perspective.
From other underrepresented populations, the short answer is we don’t know. The shorter answer is I’m sure it’s not that good because you can just kind of, I know who our faculty are, I know who we can take a look at. We see some categories of underrepresented groups that are reasonably presented in our innovation numbers, but not at the level that they are on our faculty. So it is something that I’m really trying to figure out.
Now I will say down at Washington Square, Frank Rimalovski runs the Leslie eLab, which again, this is this huge ecosystem. I can talk about myself, but I do want to give credit to Frank. So he runs the I-Corps group. He does a lot of training and education. And he’s really, if I’m working on the early pipeline, he’s working even earlier in the pipeline of undergraduates and early graduate students. And Frank’s results are phenomenal.
And he has something like 50 or 60% of every startup that has come through that programme has a woman on the founding team. Many of them are women-led. I think 70% of all of them have women on the team.
I don’t know what he’s doing, but everybody should figure it out. And he should be able to say, this is how he made it work. And he’s working on doing that because the results are really not only phenomenal, but aspirational.
I’m super proud to be part of an organisation that can show those numbers. So if anybody has any questions about that, I would look down at the Leslie eLab at NYU Washington Square and give Frank a call because the numbers really are fantastic.
For us at the classic tech transfer, we’ve got work to do. But again, we have work to do. We have to figure out who’s in the pipeline. The pipeline has work to do, so we have to go earlier and earlier. But I think the message of all this is all that work must be intentional. You can’t just say, eh, you know, I get what I get, right? We have to create intentional programmes for women. We have to create intentional programmes for underrepresented populations. We have to meet people where they are, expand the worldview of what innovation is. And it’s work, but it’s the work that we have to do. We have a moral obligation to do it.
Yeah. Speaking of being intentional, can you tell me a little bit about the EDI training at BIO I-Corps that NYU is involved in?
Yes. That was actually the thing that sent me on this journey. I don’t know that it’s ironic, I guess, as an ally, as a white male. Somebody opened my eyes to the EDI aspects of society seven, eight years ago, which isn’t to say that I didn’t recognise that there was inequity, but looking in my own backyard and saying, what does it mean to me to have this issue facing me?
A woman named Susan Baxter at San Diego State did one of the I-Corps programmes and said, why don’t we run an I-Corps program at the BioInternational meeting focused on underrepresented populations? And so it was a consortium of us.
It was Susan and Stanley Maloy at San Diego State, Roman Lubynsky at MIT. I was at UNH at the time and I did bring it here with me when I came. And then Chad Womack at UNCF, formerly United Negro College Fund. And it has been a phenomenal experience.
We’re generally looking at graduate students, postdocs, and early career faculty, and we’re trying to expose them to the principles of entrepreneurship and the life sciences. And so they do customer discovery, which by now I think everybody’s familiar with what that process is, but they do it on the floor of BIO. And so what you have is 60, 70, 80 students and teams of three and four wandering around the BIO floor interviewing people.
And the first year, we didn’t know how it was going to work. We thought maybe these teams, they’ll talk to four to six people and that’ll be great. We’ll flex those muscles a little bit. And the average number of companies that they talked to was something like 28. And it was just amazing. They just went for it. It was really transformative for the staff. It’s been transformative every year.
And again, it’s interesting to be in a room like that, again, as an ally and somebody who’s just trying to help and hear what comes out of it. People saying…
I remember two things distinctly. The first one was both women, actually. The first woman said, I have never been in a room of people that look like me before thinking about these things. And that she felt like that was incredibly empowering. She started to kind of break into tears. Of course, the entire, the faculty just start breaking into tears.
Everyone was sobbing, yeah.
Because she just said, I’m going to go back and feel like I can do anything in the world because I just know.
The second one was a different kind of story. It was an early career faculty member. And I’m not sure why she joined the programme. But we try to be, there’s a handoff between technology, the goal is to treat people to make human health better. And at the end of this programme, she said, I came in here and I was thinking, industry is my enemy. I am the university. My goal is to guard science from the evils of, I’m paraphrasing, to guard science from people who will exploit it. And she said, it’s just wrong. I was wrong. I didn’t know how important this handoff was. I didn’t know what an important role industry played in patients being made better. Because I always just thought if I made my science better, patients eventually get better.
And she said, now I’m exposed to this process. And now I’m thinking that I have to go back and talk to my students about how this is not a wall that one throws an idea over, but a continuum in which we can play. And so you hear those stories over and over again.
We’ve had graduates go into venture funds. We’ve had graduates actually start their companies. We’ve had people in that programme who’ve gone into tech transfer offices. It is literally the happiest four days of my year to be in that room and to just try to get people tuned up to go do it. It has literally changed my life. I am not exaggerating because it then fed back into AUTM about, hey, we’ve got to really do this and we’ve got to be intentional about it. And I think AUTM has made some strides.
And then even at NYU Langone Health, when we’re talking about hiring, we talk about this stuff all the time. We ask, are we advertising in the communities where underrepresented populations are instead of wondering if they’re going to find us where we are? So we make intents to advertise in the Society of Women Engineers and Society of Black Engineers and that we’re making sure our job postings go where they ought to go.
But what I will say, Thierry, is it’s hard. And I’m not saying that as a complaint. I’m saying we are doing all these things. We are intentional. We are pushing things out. We actually are holding positions open until we get folks from underrepresented populations in the hiring pool. But there have been places where we’ve waited six months because nobody came into the hiring pool.
And so at a certain point, you have to say, OK, well, we are doing our very best, but we need this position to be filled. So there’s still a gap. And I don’t know how to fill it. And it’s one of the most frustrating things that I’m going through right now as a person is to figure out, I think we’re doing the right things. I think we’re asking the right questions. I think we are in the right places, sort of. But there is something about the invitation to participate that is getting lost. I have to figure out a way to find it.
I mean, it certainly sounds like… I don’t know if I’ve spoken to anyone else who’s thought about where to post the job advertising.
Yeah, you have to meet people where they are.
Most people just kind of they put it on LinkedIn, their website, and that’s kind of as far as it goes.
LinkedIn is awesome, but I learned this when we were at UNH and we tried to do some programmes for women innovators. We said, all right, we’ll do it at 4pm. That seems good. And nobody came. And then I asked a couple of questions. I said, well, the stereotype is real. 75% of women are the primary caregivers. So you’re putting a programme for me when I have to go pick up my kids. Like, huh, that’s true.
Like, well, how about I put it at noon? They’re like, well, noon’s better. But of course, it’s in the middle of the day, and I’m trying to get tenure. And so, you know, but what turned out working the best was like, and we didn’t do it very long until covid hit, but was like a coffee klatch or just like, you know, we’re open for office hours on a couple of days, and we move the days around so that people could come to us when it was better for them.
But it really struck me that, you know, I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m creating programmes and don’t feel guilty for me. I’m just like, just want to get across that these are intentional. And we thought well thought out people with lots of women in our office who are also contributing to this. It’s not just me trying to do all this stuff.
And you know, you get it wrong all the time, because you really have to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re trying to talk to. And do you know where they are? And that’s actually the fundamental issue with all of this is a lack of understanding of the people situation whom you’re trying to reach.
So that’s the place where, you know, how do you get there? It’s like you need to have some folks who come from populations you’re trying to reach come in, but actually when they do, you can’t put the burden of your work on them, because that’s also a problem where, you know, the same people are being asked the same questions all the time, and they’re weighed down under the weight of the effort.
So it’s just, you know, all I can say to everybody is like, it’s hard. I literally think about it every single day. And it’s just going to take all of us trying every single day to make small changes that will lead to big changes over, you know, five, seven, 10 years.
On a slightly, hopefully more positive note, though, what are the opportunities that you have in NYU’s ecosystem?
I mean, I think they’re limitless. That’s been the great part about New York City is it’s the centre of finance. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in the city. And I define the city not just as the island of Manhattan or the five boroughs, but the tri-state area. So going up into Connecticut, all the way down to as far as Philadelphia. We have employees in our office who live in Philadelphia. We have employees actually who live in Vermont and New Hampshire.
So it’s a really big, dense place where there is a lot of talent. So I think the opportunities are what I said earlier, which is, can we see every single idea that has merit and even the ones that don’t have merit, because we need to see everything to know where we can focus. But I will say New York City particularly has made a tremendous push in the life sciences, which surprised me. I sort of saw it from far away. I wonder if this is real. You see a lot of splash, but is there meat behind it? And man, there’s meat behind it.
So I have started to say in the last six months, I believe that New York can compete fiercely with Boston for that number two position in the life sciences. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity here. There’s great wet lab and incubator space. There’s an incredible amount of talent between NYU, holistically, Columbia, Weill-Cornell, Rockefeller, Mount Sinai. I’m sure I’m forgetting three or four people in the city, but CUNY and SUNY systems.
There’s just a hospital for special surgery. It just goes on. I mean, there’s like $5bn in early stage research in the life sciences in New York City. So I actually think in a couple of years, everybody’s going to sort of wake up and New York is going to be a really significant player in the life sciences and everybody’s going to want to know how the heck that happened.
And it’s really going to be on the backs of the state and the city’s investment, of course, but also on that $5bn of enterprise value being brought into the economy every year just in pure research. It’s pretty tremendous.
You’ve already, I think you mentioned the CHIPS Act earlier. How do you hope the CHIPS and Science Act will change tech transfer in the US? I’m guessing it will have a positive impact.
I think it will. I think there are really two places where I’m very excited to have this thing finally pass. The first is, so I talked a lot about life sciences because I think actually a lot of tech transfer is life sciences, but physics, astronomy, physical sciences, engineering, computer sciences, all very much enabled by the CHIPS Act.
And all areas where technology is a little harder to commercialise because in the life sciences, you have a patent that covers a drug and nobody wonders whether or not you’re using the drug. You just get a mass spec. It’s like, hey, that’s my drug infringement. Not to say those cases are that simple, but you know what I mean. Nobody doubts what the material is. It’s straightforward.
Where in the physical sciences, lots of non-exclusive licensing, lots of things embedded in things, lots of standards bodies. You’re never the single reason why anything occurs. And so licensing tends to be a little harder and it tends to be a little longer term.
I was speaking to a friend in a different uni, I’ll keep this nameless and vague for the anecdote, but who had said one of their most successful licensing platforms was something that did not get its first non-exclusive licence for eight years. And then after eight years, all of a sudden, industry caught up to where this emerging science was and said, oh, we need this. And then they were licensing, doing dozens of licences a year for it and turned into a relatively reasonable revenue stream for the institution.
So what I think CHIPS and Science will do is, first of all, put a lot of focus and a lot of energy on on-shoring that work so that we’re doing the development. We’re doing the manufacturing in the US, which is really critical.
The second piece though, is something that I had a direct hand in, is part of the CHIPS Act that is approved, but not allocated yet, meaning it’s unfunded to the moment. Because there is language in there about funding tech transfer directly. Since I know you have a global audience, some of them might be shocked to know, in fact, many people in the US government are shocked to find out that the government puts not one dollar into technology transfer.
We are the only country in the developed world that does not directly fund and or enable technology transfer.
Now some folks in policy wonks will say, oh, but we do SBIR, we do this. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the people to do the work of finding those and protecting those early-stage ideas. Every other country in the developed world who is good at tech transfer, the government is funding. Now, the REF and the KEF in the UK, I mean, they’re not perfect, right? But you can say, we’re funding so you can have positions.
Through AUTM, myself, Ian McClure, Kelly Sexton, Steve Sousalka, Orin Herskowitz, lots of us sort of got together and said, let’s push for this. I had actually floated that idea to the sister institutions in the US, the AAUs and COGRs and APLUs back in 2016. And everyone’s like, that’s ridiculous, no one will do that.
And then covid hit, we’re like, well, maybe they’ll do it. And then back when it was Endless Frontiers and this whole programme sort of morphed. But it started to get some heat because I kept pushing and saying, look, it’s bipartisan, right? Every state in the US has a research institution, sometimes multiple ones. So you do this, everybody gets it.
If you give it to everybody, then everybody can say, I have a dedicated person to direct the tech transfer. If you have somebody directed to tech transfer, AUTM and the other associations can provide support and enable some things to happen where they didn’t happen before. In fact, in the original version of the law, there was a call out rolling back to the EDI stuff for the HBCUs to get a difference and the MSIs to get a different allocation to accelerate the commercialisation in those institutions. But it was pulled out in the sausage making of law in the United States.
Nonetheless, if it is ever appropriated, it basically will make each university who has any research of substance be able to hire at least one person to do tech transfer. And I think that would be transformative for the United States because there’s lots of institutions where… you know, NYU is great, my office has 35 people-ish, we’re going to grow beyond that.
But lots of institutions with $50m, $60m in research who have great ideas, it might be their sponsored research group. It might be a consultant. It might be somebody else. There’s not a professional on the ground to do the work and yet they expect results.
So if this is appropriated eventually, and for those in your audience who have influence over Congress in the United States or have influence over influencers who can influence Congress in the United States, just pass it and appropriate it. It’ll be the best money you’ll ever get because it will directly lead to results in a way that I don’t think has been done to date. So that I think could be transformative for the United States.
It’s always seemed a bit mad to me that you passed Bayh-Dole and you kind of went, you do this, good luck, you get nothing from us.
It’s a great unfunded mandate. But you know what’s interesting is I think in some ways that’s where the US kind of, it takes advantage of the US, well, we just have to do it, so we’re going to do it. Each place finds a way to make it happen. But at a certain point, when you hear your Congress people, when you hear your local newspapers, when people, especially in bad economies, they’re like, where are the jobs coming from? It’s like, well, jobs don’t just apparate, right? You have to invest in something that creates a job.
And so investing in technology transfer and investing in commercialisation creates the opportunities that create the jobs. And so it’s a really, to me at this point in the US, it’s almost like we did a barn-raising communally across the United States over 45 years, but how about we blew a little gas in the car and see where we could go? My view is they would probably triple the outputs of innovation in the US if they funded it.
And I think that it was like $300m a year to fund most universities, which is a drop in the bucket of the federal budget.
Yeah. I want to, while we still have time, I want to quickly look at your own career as well, look a bit further back, as people will know, you’ve been at NYU for 18 months, you spent 11 years at UNH before that, you were at UNC Chapel Hill, and then you joined one of its spinouts, Qualyst, which I find quite interesting. And of course, past chair of AUTM.
What first piqued your interest in this profession and what kept you going all these years?
Yeah. So I guess I’ve been in tech transfer since 1996, which I jokingly said, I think I’m the youngest person with the most experience in the country right now, because I was one of the people that started, I had a job for three years doing food science, and then I stumbled my way into tech transfer.
And the story is that my father in law’s ex tennis partner was the head of the tech transfer office at UNC Chapel Hill. And so when I moved to Chapel Hill, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t have a job. And he was literally the only person that any of our networks knew this is realistically pre internet, pre-LinkedIn, pre… like, you just called your friends and your family and hey, does anyone know anyone who lives in this place?
And so I met Fran Meyer and he said, I just was looking for a job as a research assistant. And he said, well, I need a temp. If you need a job, I’ll give you a job. I totally need a job. I will take this job. This job is great. You know, and I thought I just do some filing. I literally was the temp filing, populating a database. So unfortunately, or unfortunately, for my staff, I tell them a lot, I have done literally every one of your jobs. Because I have been the temp, I have filed paperwork, I have loaded information in a database. I have scanned umpteen hundreds of thousands of documents to make a database be alive.
So you know, and then I was there for a year. And he said, well, you know, I’ll make a position for if you want to stay. I said, great. My salary was $34,000, I thought I died and gone to heaven. And we just started from there.
And I worked at Chapel Hill for eight years, increasing levels of responsibility and then got a little bit bored. I shouldn’t say bored. It was sort of the same problems over and over again. And I had gotten my MBA during the mix and thought, alright, I think I know how this works. I think I could be a part of the company. But this was back when nobody did this. So we had a company that turned into Qualyst. And I helped them raise their first seed capital. I helped them find a CEO, I helped them write their business plan. It was just like my baby inside the idea.
And you know, we launched them. And then four months later, the CEO said, you know, we’re an IP enabled company. And none of us know IP that well, but you do. Would you come to the other side? And I said, I would. At the time, I think there were only like, maybe there were two or three other people in the US who had gone from tech transfer to industry without having started in industry first. So there were a couple of side glances at me the first couple of times I met people like, you did what?
Now people get into tech transfer so they can get into startup companies. But at the time, that was pretty rare. I’ve said this story before, but what it was, was fascinating and somewhat humiliating to do that. Because by the time I tarted at Qualyst, I had done hundreds of licence agreements with… we were a very productive institution. And I thought I knew what I was doing. And then I go, I license it to the company, I had no idea that I was going to go switch sides at the time. So the conflict for those of you who are getting squeamish in your chair, it just wasn’t, I didn’t know.
So I take the job, and we work out the details. And then I go to the other side. And six months later, I’m looking at the licence agreement saying, Oh, this doesn’t work at all. Like this doesn’t work for my business. This doesn’t work with the way that we’re using the science. This actually hurts us. And it doesn’t help us. And all these arguments that I heard over the years that I thought people were just trying to negotiate with me. It’s like, oh my god, it’s all true. It’s all true.
So I wound up that what I tell people is I negotiated that licence four times. As the business model of the startup changed, I had to go back four separate times and negotiate that licence four separate times so that the licence could enable the company and not the other way around.
And that experience has been really transformational for me over my career. Because when I look at tech transfer now, I understand the faculty stuff, I understand the policies and all the stuff that we have to do.
But I actually tend to look at the process inverted. So I look at it from the industry side and say, what does industry need from us? How do we get it to them? And then go backwards from that to say, how can we make the university do the things necessary in the early stages to create a better chance for our ideas to be industry ready when it’s the time and how do our licence agreement support industry.
And so, you know, a lot of times when we do startups, I’ll tell them, give us your business plan and we’ll write the milestones around your business plan. You know, it’s almost like, wait, are you kidding? You know, you’re supposed to go first. I said, look, you tell us what you’re going to do. Because if it’s in your business plan and you’re raising money on it, your investors expect you to do those things too. So if your investors expect you to do them, then I should be expected to do them.
And it’s led to some interesting conversations because we’re like, well, we have a discussion sometimes. This is no one at NYU yet, but certainly at UNH where they would say, well, wait, no, no, no, I don’t want that. You know, I don’t want to keep that milestone in the licence agreement. Like, it’s in your business plan, you raise money on it. Why don’t you want to be accountable to it? They’re like, well, you know, fundraising.
So what I think it leads to is a much more productive conversation. Because what I say to them is, you tell us what you think you can do. And we’ll try to put that to the best of our ability in the licence. Now, obviously, we have a little bit of a BS detector. We know we do lots of deals, we know what it should look like. So it’s not like we just take them and stick them in the licence and walk away and don’t evaluate it. But we really want their opinion first.
It’s kind of disarming in a good way for the partners, because they’re just not used to that attitude. I’m about a half a step away from the startups here at NYU, just because I’m trying to do all this other stuff. But that’s kind of the philosophy that I use with startup when we talk to them is, how can we help you get that idea into the market? Because we’re completely aligned in that we want you to sell stuff to make people’s lives better.
And if you do that, and people pay you for it, we’re going to get our return that way. Society gets its return first, we get our financial return second.
That’s very wise. It makes it sound like everyone who is leading a tech transfer office should have done a spinout at some point before they get to the top and teach them the lessons from the other side.
I will tell you, it really colours in a good way every decision that I make. So I think it was very helpful. I won’t say it was fun or painless, because it was very painful. But it was a good experience now and is probably the reason that I think about things the way I do at NYU.
We are sadly out of time. Is there anything else that you want people to know before we go?
I think just because you have a very broad audience, there may be a couple of take homes. One is I go back to that concept of serving the idea as I think a core principle that we think about all the time.
Because it tends to allow me some clarity on… I try not to get worked up on one side or another, who is fair or unfair, these kind of subjective terms that we all occasionally get wound up over.
But to think about what does this idea need to be successful, and are we enablers, or do we enhance the ability of success, or are we sort of getting in the way of the ability of success? We try to take some risks.
And then the last was actually where we ended up in the last question, which is the goal at the end of the day is to get ideas into the world to make the world better, and to work backwards from there to make sure that you’re doing everything that you can to make that happen.
Because if there is, I tell our faculty too, if you don’t create a product, and there is no market, and you don’t create a product, and nobody buys it, literally nothing happens. So we can fight over the financial returns, which we do, and I think we’re quite good at.
But in the end, if there isn’t anything for anyone to buy, there is no success.
So to just focus on that first, and then I do have a few aphorisms, I apologise, Thierry, but it’s like another phrase I use a lot is shared value, shared return. So if we increase value and increase share of value, we expect a larger share of return. If we don’t do anything to increase value, other than enable the idea, then we expect to reach the normal set of returns.
And so for us, we’re really focused on that question of what are the things that we’re gonna do to enable the increase in value of the things that we have before they go out and somebody else takes them and eventually brings them to market.
Those are some very good closing words. Marc, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me this morning. Great pleasure to learn more about NYU and your own career as well.
Thank you, Thierry. This is great. Time flew. I didn’t realise we even went over a little bit.
We did a little bit, yes. I could have kept talking to you for another hour, but maybe our listeners would have not appreciated that.
Yeah, you never know. Part one of six.