Universities are keen to ramp up their innovation activities but they are struggling to find the technology transfer professionals they need.

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photo courtesy of Ann H on Pexels.com

One of the biggest recruitment challenges for tech transfer offices is the flat hierarchy — which other white collar professionals can struggle to understand.

“We will be asked quite frequently, ‘How many people are gonna report to me in this position? Because it’s important I have that on my resume, otherwise, this is not seen as a logical upward step or progression in my career’,” David Winwood, a consultant with specialist recruitment firm Gardner Innovation Search Partners tells Global University Venturing.

It is a problem that has become more pronounced since the covid-19 pandemic. Winwood says he doesn’t remember being asked this question by candidates in the more than 25 years he led and recruited from within offices — he stepped down from the last such job, interim executive director of LSU Innovation Park, about a year into the pandemic in June 2021.

Tech transfer offices are also grappling with this problem internally: how do you give staff career progression and growth and more leadership opportunities? If you don’t, you are likely to lose them.

The good news is that tech transfer offices haven’t seen the “great resignation” that hit other sectors, says Glen Gardner, president of Gardner Innovation Search Partners.

However, there is a desperate need for new talent. The struggle to find practitioners is “universal”, says Gardner. That is largely due to universities ramping up their innovation activities; many large institutions have even created new cabinet-level positions typically in the form of chief innovation officers (UC Berkeley’s Rich Lyons and Tulane’s Kimberly Gramm are among those GUV has previously interviewed on the Talking Tech Transfer podcast).

Lesley Millar-Nicholson, executive director of the Technology Licensing Office (TLO) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a few months ago described how she had been facing a large turnover among staff. Her LinkedIn post received hundreds of reactions and more than 70 comments, many noting the similarities with their own experiences.

Gardner is candid about the post, saying he understands the frustration and feels bad because the TLO had hired his firm to recruit three staff members, but for one position in particular the hires just kept falling through.

“Nothing is linear in my business. My product can change their mind. My product’s spouse can change their mind. My product’s kids can say, ‘I don’t wanna leave my junior year in high school’. A deal’s never a deal until the cheque clears, obviously,” he says.

It doesn’t help that tech transfer is a niche profession and one that requires a very unique set of diverse skills. “Think about it: your average tech transfer person is a PhD in something. They mostly have MBAs and they may have JDs,” Gardner says. And out of those, not everyone will have negotiated an exclusive patent licence or a material transfer agreement.

Winwood himself is a good example, having trained as a chemist before spending 15 years working in startups where he enjoyed translating material from the research team and presenting it to potential investors and partners.

He then “stumbled into tech transfer”, where he realised his past experiences had “unwittingly” prepared him for the profession.

Everybody wants to be the executive director of the Technology Licensing Office at MIT. Not everybody’s qualified.

Glen Gardner

The biggest recruitment challenge, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t at the executive level. “Everybody wants to be the executive director of the Technology Licensing Office at MIT,” Gardner says. Even if, of course, “not everybody’s qualified.”

It’s the jobs at the lower level that are more complex. “How many people can do cradle-to-grave deals with no adult supervision in optics or biotech or whatever?” posits Gardner. But the salaries at the “worker bee” level are lower. “When we get a worker bee position, we cringe, because we get paid a third as much because the salaries are lower, it’s 10 times harder to get people to move. They’re already making X and there’s just not much of a delta between the new position.”

It can also be difficult to meet diversity, equality and inclusion targets. “If you look at our candidate pool for life science searches, the male-to-female ratio is about 50/50,” Gardner reveals. But in physical sciences it is still lingering at a 60/40 ratio so in these candidate searches “there’s just not a lot of” women, Gardner says. “We’re working very hard on that,” he stresses, adding it is “probably one of the most challenging things that we are dealing with now.”

A potential solution to this, and other recruitment headaches, is opening up job searches internationally. “Here in the United States, visas are an issue,” but Gardner is telling clients to open searches up for Canadians, Brits, Australians and others (albeit steering clear of Chinese candidates because export control restrictions make this too difficult).

Another solution is to recruit from a wider range of backgrounds. “We’re trying to tell our clients to be as open-minded and diverse as you can from both just the traditional diversity things, but really it’s more from a technical background too,” Gardner says.

Universities do have at least one ace up their sleeve, however. Gardner and Winwood both say they are able to recruit candidates internationally and even attract people from industry when that means a significant salary cut because universities tend to offer very high-value perks like tuition reimbursements. In one case, that perk even led to a patent attorney moving into Cornell University’s TTO early because he needed to get the clock ticking for his children.

Hear more insights from our interview with Glen Gardner and David Winwood on Talking Tech Transfer, embedded below, or click to listen and subscribe on the platform of your choice. You can find all previous interviews here.


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Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).