cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Alicia Löffler

We talk to Northwestern University’s Alicia Löffler about the importance of a university fully embracing innovation and entrepreneurship as part of its social contract, diversity in tech transfer and helping commercialisation staff live up to their full potential.

Löffler is the founding executive director of the Innovation and New Ventures Office, associate provost for innovation and new ventures and associate vice-president for research.



Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Alicia, thank you much for joining us today. To start with, maybe you can give us a bit of an overview of Innovation and New Ventures’ work and some key figures?

Our job at the Innovation and New Ventures Office at Northwestern is to bring Northwestern innovations to the market, to the public. Now, we also are tasked with overseeing or nurturing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern. We figured that if we wanted to promote innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern, if we wanted that to be sustainable, we needed to nurture that culture.

At Northwestern, we have about 21,000 students and 3000 faculty members. We figured that the students are the agents of change. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to spread the culture through the students, and we have done a lot of programmes for students. We have accelerators, we have fellowships, we have curricula that are related to entrepreneurship. One thing that has been striking is how the students, because they have this magnifying effect, they have a multiplier effect, have been able to get into the labs, they are able to promote the culture, and it has been extraordinary to see how fast this has been growing.

Now, going to numbers. I am not really fond of defining activities through the numbers, because as you understand, they are all lagging metrics. So, for us, it takes years and years to see the progress in translation and commercialisation. But let me give you some numbers. In the last year we had about 626 patents that we filed; 120 patents were issued. We executed 187 agreements. Most of our activities are in the area of healthcare, broadly. Most activity is in the medical school and the engineering schools. Now, there are two numbers that I want you to remember about Northwestern because they are key numbers. One is our revenues, our licensing revenues, and in the last five years we had, $1.6bn in licensing revenues. Now, this is a huge number, but it is due to only one drug, and that drug was Lyrica, which is marketed by Pfizer.

The other number that is important about us is the research enterprise that has grown 110% in the last 10 years. We are about $900 million in research now, but what is important is the growth. Our biggest challenge today is to manage that growth.

Those are impressive numbers for any university. Especially here in the UK, whenever someone thinks about America, it tends to be Stanford and MIT, despite the fact that there are obviously a lot of universities that do fantastic work such as yourself. It is really great to hear that you have some very impressive figures there. How has the pandemic affected your work?

There has been a lot written up about how during recessions and crisis entrepreneurship and innovation growth and oh boy, we saw that growth. We are all exhausted from all the work in the last few months. But it is just rewarding to see how the faculty members and all the researchers are energised trying to use whatever they know, whatever tool they have to solve this problem.

We saw a high increase in entrepreneurial activity at Northwestern. Let me give you some numbers. We saw an increase of 35% in the number of inventors compared with last year at the same time, 17% in the number of inventions, a 50% increase in the number of startups. And this is the number which is interesting; an 81% increase in the fundraising of those startups, successful fundraising during this period. Many of these deals started before the pandemic, but there are many many that happened in the last few months, which is very interesting.

Now, the other thing that was interesting about this pandemic, as you said, you think about MIT and Stanford and then you do not think about the middle of the country. We are in Chicago, in the flyover zone, and it is hard to get the attention of the blue-chip VCs and investors, but now with the society of Zoom, we are able to get the attention of investors from across the country. That has been a side effect of this pandemic, which I hope will continue after the pandemic, now that we have discovered Zoom, but we will see.

Yes, I have heard a few people say that geography has evaporated for them. If you have to be on Zoom, even if the person is down the street from you, it does not matter if they are halfway across the country.

That is right. And we are now able to get great presenters, great speakers coming to talk to our faculty. Mentorship is easier. It has been an interesting experience.

You are the founding executive director of the INVO as well. Can you give me some background as to what motivated you to launch that office?

Well, of course, this was not me. It was in consultation with the leadership at the university. It was a confluence of factors. The first one was, as I mentioned, we had this great success of Lyrica that inspired many faculty members, researchers, et cetera, and we also saw the financial success. That was one of the factors. The second factor was that we started recruiting these extraordinary researchers and faculty members that were not only excellent scholars, but also great entrepreneurs and they came to the university with expectations of having some infrastructure.

Also, as we mentioned, we are in the Midwest, we figured that if we wanted to have repeat success, we needed to build infrastructure that will be holistic, that will help us move from the beginning of the research, do all the translation, and then the transactions and the new ventures. We had to put efforts in four different buckets. Translational programmes, educational or mentorship programmes, spaces and funding. We had to build all from the beginning, and that is where we are.

It is 10 years later, and you have done a good job of it so far.

Thank you. Well, I have to say, this is a complete team effort. I have extraordinary people in my team, and it is a very diverse group of people in terms of backgrounds; finance, marketing, business development, et cetera. It is a team effort.

Yes, of course. Speaking of diversity, you are a woman in a tech transfer leadership position specifically, how do you think we can ensure more women reach the top?

First of all, I should clarify that the tech transfer industry is a really inclusive industry. It is a real open and good, diverse industry. What does reaching the top means? It depends. What does top mean in tech transfer? One thing that I do, whenever someone joins the team, the first thing I ask is, where do you want to go? There are people that want to go into venture, business development, marketing, or the tech transfer profession. Women in general, they feel that they have to be over prepared to attack challenging problems.

One of the things that I like to do is to give these junior associates big challenging portfolios that will put them out there and that will give them visibility and offer them, of course, tremendous support and guidance. But I want them out there to build their own networks and to build their visibility, giving them the prime portfolios for them to excel. That is one of the things that we do.

At the other end of the spectrum, I actually recently spoke with Nichole Mercier — when we are recording, this is not quite out yet, but by the time people hear it, it will have been — about increasing the engagement of women faculty with TTOs. Is that a challenge that you are also facing at Northwestern? How are you tackling it?

Oh absolutely. When I came, one of the things that I noticed is that there were zero women founders, and I find that very strange knowing that about 50% of the faculty in biological sciences are women. I really wanted to understand what was going on. We did not have data at the time, we started looking at the data and trying to see where the gap happened from publication to the disclosure of inventions to getting engaged in the entrepreneurial activities. Of course, the gap happens at the invention step, that is what we found. At the time, about 7 to 8% of potential women were inventing at the university, which is a very low number, as opposed to about 25% of the potential males.

So, there was a gap there. This is a very slow process. We started doing interviews, talking a lot one-to-one, trying to find out what stopped them from doing it, and we found things that we all know is, no time. There are way too many committees because they are the token women in the committees. They felt that this was not for them, that this was something that was not mainstream, that they were overwhelmed, et cetera.

We are talking a lot and offering a lot of mentorships. We created many programmes like Propel. Those programmes are impactful of course. The common denominator is to create safe spaces for women to feel safe asking questions, no judgements and trying to be able to practice, et cetera. But those programmes are still not as impactful as the real policy. One thing that we did is to put a term in our license agreements and to force the startup companies to hire women. So, the exact phrase is to have a diverse management team that reflects the makeup of the community at large. This was a bold step because most many people were saying, oh, this is going to make the licensees very nervous. We found that actually if you are a startup of Northwestern, we are reflecting our culture and you should be able, whatever it takes, to build a diverse team. It has been working. we have not seen the results yet because it is too early. But we do not get too much pushback from that.

You have touched a little bit on the next question I had. A big question really. What lessons have you learned in your time in tech transfer so far, and what changes would you still like to see?

More or less what I learned is that, again, this is a great community, very generous with each other. With other universities, we are very, very collaborative. I had a sense that things were going to take long, but I did not think it was going to take this long. I came here for about two years. I am 10 years in, and it is much more fun than I thought it was. It is just an incredibly rewarding industry. What I would like to change is, tech transfer offices usually at universities are in a very unique space. The mission of the university is usually education and research. The tech transfer activities are now integrating in the mission of the university because it is all about knowledge. You create knowledge with research, you spread knowledge with education and with innovation and entrepreneurship, you apply that knowledge.

That integration has to be really, really close. It has to be really understood by the institution that it is our social contract to bring this knowledge to society, and it has to be integrated. So, if I could change something, it is that all institutions should be able to embrace this mission a hundred percent, otherwise, it does not work. You have to be completely committed to innovation and entrepreneurship at the institution.

That makes complete sense, but I have a feeling we are a little bit away from that still to be a reality everywhere.

The worst that could happen is that you are in someplace in the middle, that you are, yes, you are part of the institution, but no, you are not. You are either out of the institution and operate as an independent entity or you are completely engaged with the institution, but being in the middle, it is not a good place.

Imperial College London, they set up their commercialisation office as a separate entity and then they listed it publicly. Eventually, that shareholder interest got in the way, and it got acquired by another investment firm, and now Imperial is starting from scratch again. They have launched a tech transfer office internally again, and it is somewhat a cautionary tale.

Oh, absolutely. Because it is very hard to run it as a business because we are talking about very disruptive technologies, very early-stage technologies. It is not a very profitable business if you run it as a business. That is our social contract. This is something that we have to do. We use a lot of taxpayer money to do research and we should bring these technologies to the public, and this is part of our mission.

I think even before I got involved in this, just as a member of the public, I always thought the research in universities somehow making it out of the labs. I did not understand how it worked, but that was always my assumption. I can definitely see that from the university side it is also something that they really need to be aware of that it is not just the crazy professor in a lab somewhere doing their thing, and then nothing really happens with it. We talked a little bit about Stanford, MIT, VC investment, and the Zoom culture. This might be slightly out of date now, but how important are initiatives such as N.XT Fund and NUseeds for an institution such as yourself, which is slightly removed from Silicon Valley?

Yes, that is what I was mentioning, you have to do the holistic approach because we do not benefit from the broader ecosystem. Stanford and MIT have a fantastic community around them. They do not need to do as much work as we do in the Midwest. We have to build our own ecosystem. So, all these programmes, translational programmes, funding programmes are essential. Now, the funding per se is not important thing, it is the know-how.

So, our translational programmes involve mentorship, involve coaching, involve the know-how, plus funding, and you have to have them both together in order for those to work. For translation, we have three accelerators, one for digital technologies and two for therapeutics. One is called NewCures and that brings mentorship and funding. Then, we are part of the Deerfield partnership universities, and we have an accelerator which is with them, which is called Lakeside Discovery and that also involves a lot of mentorship and significant funding.

Are you one of… Because Deerfield has some of $100m and some of $130m.

All the agreements are now the same. So, we are all the same. They are upgrading, we are all the same.

Deerfield has really stepped up in translational funding. It is amazing what they are doing.

It has been a fantastic experience.

This is my favourite question, and usually people hate it. What is your favourite company that has come out of Northwestern far?

Darn. That is like picking your favourite child. It never ends well. I am going to give you one example of a company, and the reason I am picking this company is because it is timely. I am not going to say it is my favourite because if anybody is listening, they will kill me. Let me just tell you about one of our companies called Sibel.

This was founded by one incredibly prolific entrepreneur by the name of John Rogers. John is also an extraordinary scholar, and he works on integrated microsystems. He does digital skin electronics, well, he does many things, but this company does digital skin electronics with extraordinary properties that can measure with high precision your vital signs, health conditions, et cetera. The first product had to do with babies. When a baby is born premature, you have to be hooked with cables and tubes to measure their vitals. I was a premature baby, so that is why I like it. The problem is that when you are all hooked up, the mother cannot hug them. They cannot feed them. Also, their skin is very fragile, so it breaks a lot with all this tubing. So, these digital sensors are like little tattoos, very small, and they can monitor the vitals wirelessly. They have little antennas inside those sensors. In that way, the babies now can be hugged.

He extended this product as a resource to Africa to monitor pregnant women, when women are giving birth also, to monitor all the vital signs. These women are away from any healthcare clinic, but they still can be monitored. Then Covid happened, and he has a new product, which is very important now because it allows the monitoring of Covid patients when they are not in the hospital, but you still have to monitor the oxygen levels, fever, et cetera. That is his company. Again, it is not the biggest, it is not the most profitable at the moment, but it is one that is very timely.

That sounds amazing. The reason I like asking this question is, yes, asking someone who their favourite child is always a bit of a naughty question, but I like that it brings out stories like this, premature babies suffering with all the tubes, and it is not comfortable, and they lack the human touch. Then obviously, creating a new product to use it for Covid is pretty awesome as well.

There are many great things that we have, but this was just one example.

My final question is a bit of an open-ended one. Is there anything that we have not covered that you would like to talk about?

Probably just stress the fact that it takes a team to do this. It is such an exciting time for us to be working on these innovations that hopefully we will rebuild the world and rebuild society.

Well, Alicia, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy day to join us today.

No, thank you. It has been a pleasure.

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).