cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Nichole Mercier

We talk to Nichole Mercier, assistant vice-chancellor and managing director for technology transfer at Washington University in St Louis, about increasing engagement from female researchers, the impact of the pandemic on women faculty with children and fostering serial entrepreneurs that choose to stay in the local ecosystem.


         Audible logo           


Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Nicole, hello.

Hi. Thank you for having me.

Thank you for joining us. As a first question, can you give us a bit of a brief overview of your office with perhaps some headline figures?

Sure. So, I lead the tech transfer office at Washington University in St Louis. It is a large research institution with over $700m in research funding and we receive mid two hundreds for invention disclosures. So, we have a pretty large operation. We do a lot of licence agreements, 15 to 20 a year, including our startup agreements. Those are exclusive license agreements of course, and we spin out somewhere between seven to 10 companies out of our university each year based on Washington University IP.

That is a good average. You are a champion for engaging women researchers in commercialisation. I actually remember your colleague, Kristen Otto’s panel at AUTM last year, feels like decades ago at this point, when she said your work had driven invention disclosures by women from 25% to 50%. Can you tell me a bit more about this work and how it led Washington University inching its way to 3-4% of women founded spinouts, which does not sound like a lot, but there were none in 2014.

That is right. It does not sound like a lot, and we say that, but when we started our efforts, we had no role models really. So, to go up to have three to four women as role models who can talk to other women, it is such a critical piece. So, yes, you are astute to point out that it does not sound like a lot, but it really is. When we started thinking about diversifying inventorship, I honestly cannot remember what led me to start reading articles about this.

It was probably a conversation with some other colleagues, and I started looking at the literature that was out there on women and how they engaged in tech transfer, how they commercialise their work and certainly a lot that followed was around the entrepreneurship statistics, which I think are talked about relatively frequently now. But truly the first stage of engagement for a faculty member begins with tech transfer. So, the fact that there was a disparity in invention disclosures in the way that women patented was really striking to me, having been in the field for at least a decade by the time I started to realise this. So, at the time, this was about 2012 and Washington University was starting to think about innovation in a different way.

So, we had a new provost and we had built a new team that was going to embark on changing innovation at the university. My thought was, Well, this is as good time as any to bring women along in this discussion to make sure that they do not fall further and so, that is when we started programming. So, we started thinking about it in 2012. We wrote a grant to our provost office in 2013 for a diversity and inclusion grant. We were lucky to get that. In 2014, we started to programme, and we really built what we did around three major concepts, if you will. There is a lot in the literature that talks about the barriers to how women engage in commercialisation.

And by the way, other underrepresented populations. Where it is, it it is now beyond women, of course, but we focus on women because that is a high metric we can actually gauge. Are we making a difference or not? So, when we were thinking about this, of course we started focusing on women and we had no idea how many women engaged our office. So, the grant helped us to be able to have a direct talking point to HR to get some of this data and to be able to look historically at what we had done. So, we had maybe three years of data, when we started that were prior to 2014 and the goal was to look three years out and to see if we made a difference there. I started to talk about the barriers that women face. This is hugely critical.

There are a lot of barriers women face, but I felt that not all of them were ones the tech transfer office could easily tackle. So, the ones I felt that we could easily tackle were, women do not get invited to participate. That is a no brainer. So, let us invite them, tell them why specifically we want them to engage. Education, women do not have the language of commercialisation. We do this all the time as a tech transfer office. We are always talking to faculty about what we do but bringing it down to a level, again with that invitation to participate was so critical. And then the third piece was their network. So, women’s networks are not as broad as their male counterparts into industry. Things like industry sponsored research, the venture community, and just engaging industry generally. We felt that those three aspects were easy for us to tackle.

Obviously, there are other barriers that women face to commercialising their work, including how much they have to serve on committees as compared to their male counterparts, including just generally how they think about their work and the readiness and the stage to be able to present it or even put it in an invention disclosure. So, that is how we started. I think you had asked about metrics and I think you did mention that we went from about 25%, it was actually a little bit higher than that, to 50%. So, that was a very conscious effort of, like I said, taking those three elements of educating, networking, and inviting women to participate and saying, We want you to be part of this, and here is how we are going to do it. We built out a network. Those first three years that we drove the programme, it was a cohort model.

So, we went to, let us see, different places in the university and said, Here is what we are doing, who would be a good fit for this? And why? And then we took that information and went to each individual that was named and said, So and so, the provost or your colleague told us that you would be a good fit for this programme, and here is why we think you would be a good fit for this programme. Are you interested?

So, the first three years, I think we had about 20 faculty in each cohort and then after that it became obvious we needed to do more, and the ones who had gone through the cohort wanted to continue and we wanted to be able to reach more people and we were getting referrals at this time. So, we ended up changing how we did it, but we kept those elements still the same. The education, the network, and the invitation were still kept the same.

Awesome. One of your initiatives, or a recent one, was Equalize 2020, which enabled academic women founders from all over the US to pitch to investors and stakeholders and to be mentored by leaders from AbbVie Ventures, Baxter International and so on. Can you tell me a little bit about how that event came together and what your plans are for the future, if you have any at this point?

Yes, sure, we do. That is also interesting, something I did not anticipate necessarily putting together, but in 2018 we were asked to apply for an award to the Association of American Medical Colleges. They were giving out awards for innovation and research and research education. In putting that award packet together, I started talking to some of the women who had gone through the programme, and it really sank in on me that women wear hats so differently from their male counterparts.

That one of them had said, Well, you know, I came to WashU and I was a researcher and now I went through this programme and I am a solidified inventor, and of course I am paraphrasing, and I thought, Wow, if we had given all that information to her male counterpart, the VC that he met after one of the networking sessions, the CEO that he met might have been the CEO for him, the VC would be investing, he would have a company spun out, and I thought, This is amazing.

I heard obviously about how women think about it differently, but it was so right there. It was so evident at that moment to me that we needed to take the next piece and help women to come from researcher to inventor to entrepreneur, and how do you do that? But you do that with coaching and role models. By the way, all faculty benefit from this. So, do not get me wrong, there is nothing, there is no brainstorm here. But I think for women that invitation is so critical. The fact that somebody else said that they would be good for this helps them to get over some of these barriers they are facing.

So, with Equalize, I started thinking about what we would need to do to attract venture into something like this, and I thought, Well, this is not a WashU-only programme. This is broader than WashU. Then I started thinking, actually there is probably no institution in the US that could stand up a really solid pitch competition solely based on female intellectual property at a stage where VCs would be interested enough to do this again.

So, it had to be national, and I believed that it was so critical, and I started talking to some colleagues about it who said, yes, I could see that this will go over really well, and it is a huge need. So, Osage University Partners, my colleague Stephanie Stehman and Kirsten Leute, worked with us on putting this together and that is how Equalize came about. We launched, I guess a year ago, or almost two years ago now, and we got 60 applicants from across the country. And I was shocked. We had no idea what it would look like. We did not even know if we would get outside of the Midwest region. But I just used my network and called all the tech transfer officers, directors that I knew spread the word and Osage did the same.

The Women Inventors committee through AUTM was super supportive. We just had so many supporters that we got really fantastic pitch decks submitted to us, and then had to select. Well, we intended to select six, but we had a solid cohort in the therapeutic space, and then a solid cohort in the medical device diagnostic space that we were able to select 12 women. Which meant that we had to double the number of people who could be mentors and judges, but that was a good problem to have. So, yes, we are planning on running it again. We are just starting conversations around what this will look like, and it might launch a little bit later. We ran it in June last year. I am not sure exactly the timeframe, but we are planning to do it again.

Is the pandemic affecting those plans? Is the pandemic affecting your work in general?

Yes, so, that is a great question. The pandemic impacted Equalize hugely because we had anticipated this being an event in person in St Louis. So, we had to learn about how you do this virtually very quickly. So, everything up till about March, we had planned to bring the pitch competitors into St Louis, all of the judges and the mentors. So, the nice part was some elements lent themselves to virtual anyway.

So, the coaching of all the women, they had one-on-one mentors, and they were coached virtually anyway because they could have been on the east coast and been matched for a mentor on the west coast but the in-person event was huge and so we did have to figure out how to take that virtually. It is interesting you mentioned the pandemic as well as we are talking about women because we have started to look at our work at our invention disclosures.

So, in the year 2020, when we ended the year about 25 invention disclosures higher than we would have predicted in March, those were largely male. We saw a huge drop in female invention disclosures in March through June, and we are starting to look at July, August, September right now.

So, I do not have that data on Q1, but I would imagine there is some impact as women are probably helping their kids through virtual learning now. So, yes, this pandemic has been very interesting to watch, especially because we got more invention disclosures from men during the pandemic, so they had more time on their hands to finally get those off their desk then to us. And we saw in two of those months, we saw zero invention disclosures from women.

Wow. I have read a lot of articles about even if both people work from home that the women have turned into the housewives again, even if they have full-time jobs. So, it is quite, maybe not surprising, but saddening to hear that it is the same for you and yes, researchers have dialled back.

That is right. And so, now it makes us start to think, and we are having this conversation in our office, and I am having it with some of my colleagues who run Women Innovators Programme says, What do we do? What do we do here to help that there is another barrier. And what does that look like, and can we make an impact there so that women do not fall behind? I do not know the answer, but it is something I am starting to work on now.

You worked as a marketing intern at UMass during your PhD and then joined WashU as a business development associate in 2005, and then you left for a few months in 2008 and then rejoined. What intrigued me is that you said in a recent interview with the World Intellectual Property Review that the Monsanto job just was not right for you. If you are going to be a working mother, you would have to love your job. Do you think loving your job is an underappreciated aspect of trying to retain or welcome back mothers into the workforce as well?

Yes. It is very interesting. In 2008, I took the role at Monsanto and it turned out to be a little bit different than I anticipated, which happens. At that point, I think if I had not had my first child, I probably would have stayed there and tried to make the best of it, maybe find a different role. But in the choice of leaving your child with somebody and not your care, and I had a stay at home mom, so I was not used to having a working mom at all. It was a really tough decision for me and I hated leaving so quickly a job because that is not my personality. But I think you have to be truthful to what your needs are.

So, I counsel students now and give them advice, and I say you really do need to be at a place to suggest your longevity and your dedication, but you can get a pass. One time on your resume if you screw up, it is okay. I think women should know that, that if you take a break, that is okay. To your question about if you take a break, that is okay too, but what is it that you could do to try to get yourself back in?

Now, I have a number of women in my office who did take a break and went and raised their children, and they are incredibly talented and smart, and it was evident from their resume. So, for me, that is not a stigma at all. That is a person who worked really hard prior, who worked really, really hard while they stayed home and raised their kids and ran their household, and that is a smart person I want to hire into my office. So, I do not think they lose those skills.

Can you come in at the same level that you left? Sometimes that is hard. But every day of the week, I am willing to take a chance on somebody who has a really solid resume, stayed home for a little bit and wants to get back into the workplace. I suspect it depends on who you are looking for, but I would tell people, There are people who want to hire you out there and do not get discouraged if you hear no the first time. Just keep going and do not worry about what that is. The other thing I would say is if you can do some volunteer work in that interim time, that brings your resume forward. Well, that is a benefit as well. I recognize that when kids are small, it is really hard to do that sometimes, but volunteering at the school or in your local community, there are opportunities to have skills that translate back into the workforce.

Awesome. I touched on it a little bit, but you were an intern during your doctoral research. How important do you think that route is to foster future tech transfer leaders? Is that an area where we need to do more to attract women and minorities as well?

Yes. Back then for me I was in my PhD programme. My roommate was also in the PhD programme, and my boyfriend, who is now my husband, at the time was also in the PhD programme. I would look at my roommate and my now husband and I would be like, Man, they look at this so differently than I do. What is wrong with me? Why can I just not eat, sleep, breathe this like they do and so for me it was like, What career opportunities are out there that you can do with a PhD, because I had committed to finishing it, but that does not involve a postdoc?

So, for me, it was just, I need to do something and being a bench researcher is not it. By the way, the field is so much better for that. But I started to see where my skill set fit. I loved the big picture of science and I loved working with scientists, and tech transfer really gave me that. Also, in tech transfer you are constantly learning, you are learning about law, you are learning about business, you are learning about science, and so that is really what made me gravitate towards it. But getting the internship was strictly like, What else is out there that I could do for a living? How critical is it?

I think now it is becoming more and more critical for if you want to come out of your PhD in postdoc to have some exposure to tech transfer, innovation on entrepreneurship because there are so many more people that know about the field and that want to get involved in it and they come with experience. So, I would say going to a tech transfer office if you are in grad school and asking what you could do to help out is a good thing. And yes, especially for women and underrepresented minorities.

Tech transfer has a high percentage of female PhDs in it and I think because it is provide a nice lifestyle for raising a family. So, I have been able to balance that, and my husband is a super family contributor as well. That cannot be undervalued. He picks up the kids, he runs them to doctor’s appointments. My kids are in school right now, but every now and then if they have one of the symptoms of covid, they have to stay home and do virtual, and that popup virtual learning is hard. We are just sitting there comparing calendars. Okay, who can take this shift? And, I have this meeting that cannot get moved. So, I am grateful to have somebody who I can do that with. But I think generally tech transfer is amenable to balancing your career and raising a family.

That is amazing. I am glad to hear you found a good man as well. I know they are rare. Even as a white dude, I know they are a rarity, they really are.

There are a lot of supportive white dudes in this, and I think when you start to have conversations about supporting women and underrepresented minorities, it is critical to have white men who are right now in the positions of power on board with this. And there are a lot, I know we always talk about old white men, but there are a lot of allies out there. People who are trying to change the way we view women and underrepresented minorities.

We had a lot of them as mentors and they have daughters. They want a different place for their daughters to come into. So, there are a lot of allies out there, which is fantastic and heartening.

Yes, I like hearing that. I had a panel a few months ago with Orin Herskowitz on it from Columbia, and when I asked him to join there were mostly white men, which was a scheduling issue. Most of the women that I had asked they just could not join when it was on, and he went out of his way to find another woman to join the panel as well. So, they are out there.

Yes, he is great. He is very supportive. He is a super supporter.

This is my favourite question, and it is the one that people tend to hate the most. Do you have a favourite spin out that has come out of WashU? Perhaps one founded by a woman?

Yes. Actually, I will tell you two if I can.

No, that is fine. Two is fine.

One of them has a product on the market. It is called a Acera Surgical. And this my favourite because this was an MD PhD student at WashU, who is now on our faculty. And during his MD PhD, he started this company. It started as Retectix was the first name of the company, but he was the entrepreneur. At that time, our university did not have a ton of support for startups and so he was out there making it happen and he found a CEO and he found investors. I mean, it was just such an amazing story. One time I saw him, he was out pitching for his company and we were both in DC at the same and I sat there talking to him, not knowing he was going to be in DC and he just started telling me this really fun story, this human, heart-warming story about his product.

That was the turning point for me of thinking, We have to tell our story differently in tech transfer. Let us stop talking the science, but this is so human. He was talking about how, prior to his product, she had a tumour that was impinging on her optic nerve. So, she was losing her sight and she could not have this surgery, but for his technology, which is a nanofiber mesh, so they were able to patch over the dura and be able to do her surgery, and she regained her eyesight, and I thought, Wow, that is the story we need to tell. It is such a great story and Matt MacEwan is such a great entrepreneur and storyteller and Acera Surgical has products on the market now.

So, that one to me just has so many twists and turns and the best part of it is Matt is in our ecosystem. We lose a lot of people being in St Louis that leave St Louis for the coast when they get VC funding. Matt is here. He is back on our faculty. He is thinking about new startups. So, from that post doc, we created a serial entrepreneur who is here.

The other company that I love is SentiAR, which is one of our first startups that has a female founder and actually a Latino founder as well. So, this is a real anomaly for us. This company, it has just been fun to watch. So, it is pretty new, only a few years old, but they have some software that is paired with a HoloLens so that you can basically do catheterization and other surgeries by watching what you are doing in real time. So, it is pretty cool. But the founders are just a lot of fun, and we are learning a whole lot about how we support women and underrepresented founders and I love that. So, yes, we have a lot of fun companies right now.

Amazing. What key lessons have you learned in your roughly two decades in tech transfer so far? And are there any areas that you think need to be improved, perhaps other than bringing more women in, which is the obvious one, I guess.

Yes. Well, two decades sounds like a really long time. I think what we are learning, and AUTM started this with the Better World Project, but I think it is really, really important to tell the story about tech transfer in a lay format. I think people really need to understand what has come out of universities and it is come out of federal funding.

So, all of these discussions, and I know that we have a global audience here, but in the US, Capitol Hill, these conversations are happening, and people are questioning, What is the value of NIH funding? What is the value of NSF funding? And the value is things like, at WashU it is the test for heart attack. The test for heart attack came out. How many people have a loved one who have walked through the doors of an emergency room and that test is so critical to their treatment.

These are the compelling, the human stories that we need to tell people so that they say, Oh my gosh, my dad went there yesterday and had that test. So, we have tried really hard in our office to tell this story to our own, to the people that work at WashU who do not even know what has come out of WashU. So, we need advocates all across our universities saying how amazing this is and they should know the test for heart attack.

We have a fertility drug that is on the market that allowed women to get beyond the daily injections that were so painful and to have one that they had to go in weekly or bi-weekly. How we are really making a difference in human society is the story that we need to tell, and we need others to tell it. So, we need to tell it so well that anybody who is walking through WashU who is maybe serving students could tell this story to somebody else and be proud of what came out of their university. And that trickles back to Capitol Hill and they know that there is a good use of the funds. So, I am hugely passionate about that storytelling. I think it is critical.

It is very important. I went to three different universities and until I got this job over six years ago now, I had no idea that this existed. It never came up. And you use stuff like Duolingo, came out of university research. It is something that almost everyone has on their phone now to learn a language, but no one knows.

It is this black box. There is research in universities. It will come out. Most people expect something to come out, but it is not really clear how that happens. And then when it happens, no one realises it. It is just they do not see the link up.

That is right. Yes. And there are a lot of household names, and we just have to keep pounding that. But making that human-to-human connection, that societal impact piece is the way to do it. And I agree with you. Everyone always asks me if you are at a party, Oh, what do you do? Oh, I work at WashU. Well, what do you do for WashU? Oh God, okay, lead tech transfer. Okay, so, now we are going to go into, What is that? But I have started even telling that story differently and I have started with, Here is the product on the market that you know about and here is how it came out. So, it is kind of funny.

My last question, kind of an open-ended one, whether there was anything that we have not talked about that you wanted people to know about?

Yes, I think it is important to raise the issue around, we have talked a lot about women, and I have mentioned underrepresented populations as well in this inventorship innovation process, but this one is a tougher nut for me to think about and crack if I am being honest and WashU is probably one of the schools with the most time spent on thinking about these topics.

We are iterating on this now, but the pipeline problem is so dramatic for African Americans, Latinos getting to a faculty position and then retaining that faculty position, moving up through the tenure track into a full professor, that by the time we are engaging and looking for underrepresented populations, I cannot do metrics in the same way that I can do them for women, which is why we started with women and focused on them.

But now as I start to think about how we bring what we know around women to these other populations, again, I am scratching my head and I feel like this has to be a national effort, a global effort. So, that we can think about how we impact the individuals that are on the faculty that are in their postdocs or graduate students and be able to help them really understand what it means to innovate and commercialise. And commercialise is not a bad word.

Again, you know, we commercialise to have societal impact not to make money. So, how do we now take what we have learned around women and changing the path for women and growing the statistics like we have at WashU for other populations. It is one I am having discussions with a number of people in the tech transfer community, but I do not think that any university can solve this problem on their own. So, that is food for thought, anyone who wants to talk about that, I am open.

I think that is a good call to arms to end on. Nicole, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy day to join us today. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

My pleasure. It was fun. Thanks.

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).