cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Orin Herskowitz

We talk to Orin Herskowitz, senior vice-president of intellectual property and tech transfer for Columbia University, and executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, about New York’s accelerators, the upsides of Zoom meetings and why having a humanities degree is the perfect background for heading a tech transfer office.



Thierry Heles: “To start with, maybe you can give us a bit of an overview of Columbia Technology Ventures, give us some headline figures perhaps?”

Orin Herskowitz: “So, my day job is executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures. We are the tech transfer office at Columbia University, which is essentially very similar to the tech transfer office at most other universities in that our day job is working with the faculty and the graduate student researchers at the science labs at Columbia to help when they come up with a new scientific invention.

“We work with them to figure out whether there is a commercial and an IP protection strategy for that invention. We get around 400 to 450 inventions a year from the faculty. Then our office, after we do the analytics around that, figures out whether we should be filing patents. We file about 200 to 250 new patent applications every year – some of them just in the US, some of them internationally. Then our team of fulltime employees, and also our graduate students – we have 35 graduate student fellows and the graduate student is a very large fellowship program. We work to market those inventions to industry and to venture capital. The ones that get some interest we try to license. In recent years, we have done about 120 or 130 licences to industry every year. About half of those are non-exclusive, the engine oil of science – it is material transfer agreements, antibody licences and reagents, non-exclusive software licences. These are incredibly important to help research progress but are typically not the foundation of a business.

“The other half are exclusive licenses. Of those exclusive licenses, about half these days are startups. In 2008, when I joined, we were doing about five or six IP backed-startups a year. These days, we are up to 20 to 30, typically, about two thirds life sciences, about one third physical sciences.

“It is also probably worth noting that is all in the category of day job. I think, like many tech transfer offices across the country, we have found ourselves with an increasingly heavy burden of night jobs. Perhaps the best way to think about those is when a new scientific idea is disclosed to us, that is typically incredibly early stage and needs so many things to survive. It is like a toddler in some ways. It is amazing science and might have had a decade and millions of dollars of federal funding behind it, but it is still very basic research. It is going to need small dollar validation studies, the researchers need education in how things get commercialised. Eventually, if it launches, it is going to need physical space, it is going to need connections to experienced technologists, commercial technologists and also CEOs, it is going to need mentors and advisors from industry, it will need a chance to get to pitch itself to industry and venture capital, and eventually need funding. So increasingly, we have put a whole bunch of initiatives in place to try and address those gaps. I would say probably 70% of my time is spent on the night job and probably 30% on the day job.”

Heles: “Every time I hear someone talk about just how much it takes from a researcher showing up in your lab with a disclosure to being a licence to industry or a startup coming out, it almost makes me wonder how it ever happened. The fact that you make it happen 100 times a year, or 20, 30 times for a company a year, is astonishing.”

Herskowitz: “Every university has a handful of researchers who have launched dozens of companies or are deeply embedded within industry and work with them incredibly smoothly. But for the vast majority of scientists, as brilliant as they are – and they are brilliant, it is a true privilege working in a place like Columbia, it is such an amazing faculty and such world class graduate students – everybody submits their first invention disclosure at some point, everybody gets their first patent at some point, everyone gets into their first commercial negotiation at some point. We very much see ourselves as the guides to try and help them get those to market. Sadly, most will still fail because science is hard, but those that succeed are incredibly rewarding.”

Heles: “You have mentioned eventually, further down the road, finding the space. You have done quite a lot of great work launching accelerators in New York, such as Alexandria Launchlabs with Alexandria Real Estate Equities. What does a successful accelerator look like?”

Herskowitz: “That is a great question. I think people use the word accelerator in a lot of different ways, so perhaps it is helpful to take a step back first. We have a programme called the Lab-to-Market Accelerator Network, which we run at Columbia. Basically, the gaps that I identified earlier, that these technologies need to cross the valley of death – small validation studies, education, mentorship and advising, access to prototyping equipment, things like that, are all challenges that every new innovation faces before it can even get a chance to test the market.

“None of those necessarily involve having a space for a startup. But we think of all of those as being the real accelerators that we launched to try and help these ideas get through the valley of death. I think we are up to ten industry-specific accelerators at this point that are under the umbrella of the Columbia Lab-to-Market Accelerator Network. We have four or five, maybe six, in life sciences at this point. One of them is funded by Deerfield, which is called Hudson Heights Innovations. We have a partnership with Sumitomo Pharma and Boston Biomedical, working with them on cancer. We have one with Takeda around metabolic disease. We have an NIH-funded one around therapeutics in general. We have an internally Columbia-funded one around devices, diagnostics and imaging. Then we have a partnership with IBM, the Columbia-IBM Blockchain and Data Transparency Accelerator. We had until recently one with New York City, called Cyber NYC, around cybersecurity. We had one with New York State around energy called PowerbridgeNY. We partnered with NYU on one called the New York City Media Lab and the New York City AR/VR Centre.

“All of these run structurally similarly. There is a call for proposals. There is sometimes just Columbia, sometimes across universities. Those get winnowed down by a board of, typically external, judges for feasibility. The ones that make it through go through a bootcamp where they are taught the relevant skills for commercialisation for that specific industry. They are sometimes given some validation funding given to try and do a prototype or do that sort of killer experiment. Sometimes it is redoing the experiment with a different animal model, building a user interface for some software. Then they are given a chance to pitch for funding to go launch a company or to partner with an industry player.

“All of that happens, before you even get to the question of space. Actually, there is even more, so the space component, which I will get to, is also predicated on the idea that you have a person or people who are going to launch something that then needs space. So, the scientists at the university – you know it happens but it is relatively rare, leave their tenured role at the university to go launch a startup, sometimes they will take a sabbatical to do it or a year off. Most commonly, it is their postdoc or graduate student when they graduate. But even then, often they really need to partner with an entrepreneur who has the commercial savvy to launch the company. All of that happens before we even get to space.

“But it is true that New York in particular has historically faced a challenge that other big startup hubs have not, which is the real estate problem. Real estate is incredibly expensive in New York, in particular, in life sciences. There is very little space that is zoned for wet labs that is appropriate for commercial bioscience in most parts of the city. In the last five to seven years, that is really starting to change. You are seeing these biotech accelerators popping up around New York. Columbia is lucky to have one already, which is Harlem Biospace, which is right in our backyard. It was founded by Dr Sam Sia, who is in our engineering school, a serial entrepreneur who launched an accelerator on the side. That has been fantastic. I do not know how he does it. It is pretty amazing. He is also the vice-dean for entrepreneurship for the engineering school. He is a busy guy.

“We now have another one, which is the one you mentioned, we are very close to our colleagues at Alexandria Real Estate. I have worked with them for years, they have invested in a number of our startup companies through their venture capital fund. We are partnering with them now to open the Alexandria Launchlabs at Columbia. They have a programme called the Launchlabs, which is a smaller but very nice biotech accelerator space for new startups that are still in growth mode. It is very flexible real estate. So, they will be launching one of those in the Columbia building right across the street from the Medical Centre. It was supposed to open in May, as you can imagine… We are targeting January at this point, and hopefully we will have it open then.”

Heles: “Fingers crossed. You have mentioned your partnership with Deerfield as well as, Hudson Heights Innovation. I do not want to go into too much detail because I think you have already spoken to my colleague Callum – he is writing a bigger piece about that. We will just cover it, so it is covered. It is $130m, which is one of the bigger ones of these initiatives by Deerfield. You are just over a year into that now, are there any early successes or challenges that you have come across?”

Herskowitz: “I think the jury is still out. We are very confident that this will be a success, and it is going very well. But we are a year in from the paper launch. We are still only about halfway through the actual first cycle of applications. The Deerfield team has been phenomenal. They are incredibly smart. They have got a tremendous amount of experience.

“When Deerfield decides to do something, they do it large and well, so it was a long time coming, but they can bring a tremendous amount of resources to the table in terms of their analytical capabilities and bringing in outside experts. We have done a call for proposals, I believe there were something like 40 or 50 applications that came in from Columbia scientists for this. We are now in the process of late-stage diligencing five to seven opportunities with the expectation that there will be funding for two or three projects. The nice thing about having access to a fund that large is that those two or three projects will essentially have unlimited resources to be able to move them to market. We are very excited about that. But it is a little early for successes at this stage.

Heles: “That makes sense. I had not realised that it took a while from paper launch to actually getting it going. That makes sense.”

Herskowitz: “It is also interesting, Thierry. Our office was founded in 1980 and we have looked back at the last 35 or so years of data from all of our inventions, going back the whole time. The reason it is not 40 is we did not have such great data in the first few years.

“We looked at how long it takes from an invention to get submitted until it is first licensed, across 35 years of data. What we have seen is that typically you only get to the 50% mark. Of all the licences you will eventually do, only about half of them get done in the first two and a half years of an invention. The lag to licence – which is what we call that – is about two and a half years across 6,000 inventions and well over 1500 to 2000 deals. So even just the time from when the innovation occurs, or even the time when we hear about the innovation, until we find a commercial partner, they do their diligence as the technology matures a bit, and then we get the licence done, is on average two and a half years, sometimes as long as 10 to 15 depending on how early the technology is. But then when you think about successes, those technologies, especially in life sciences, need to go through the preclinical work, phase one, phase two, phase three approval launch, and that process is another eight to 12 years.

“So, when we have looked at our most successful innovations, and the office has generated over $3bn of revenue over that time, the time till the first real money started coming in, which is kind of a proxy for market success– not that the money is the important part, but just as a measure that these are being used– is often 13 to 17 years. This is a heavily black swan business that requires patience.”

Heles: “I realised that it took many years, but 13 to 17? Wow. How long have you been with Columbia? Are you starting to see the successes from your first year of joining?”

Herskowitz: “It is interesting. I have been here 15 years now, a little bit under, which is interesting, because I thought this was going to be a year or two and I have been here 15 years. It has been fascinating. In the physical sciences, things move much more quickly.

“In the life sciences, we have seen some successful outcomes from deals that we have done during that timeframe. It is really gratifying to see products come to the market. But on the other hand, a lot of those are still interim outcomes. When a company like Applied Therapeutics or Schrödinger has their IPO, or when Modis Therapeutics gets sold to Zogenix, these are still interim outcomes. They are typically fundraising events essentially where our equity is suddenly worth money, but the drugs from those companies are still going through clinical trials and are not yet on the market.

“We think of this sometimes as like a winemaker might plant a vineyard, then you have to wait for the vines to mature, then you have to wait for the grapes to grow, then you have to process the grapes, then you have to sometimes wait for the wine to then mature. It is sort of a bad metaphor, because the challenge also in our case is that we are not necessarily choosing what vines we are even planting. The scientists are researching whatever they want to research and the federal government is funding what they choose to fund. Then we have to work with what we get.”

Heles: “You just have to work with it. You wrote a guest comment for Xconomy a couple of years ago, about how to ensure scientific founders stay happy when CEOs come in and run ‘their’ company. How, if at all, does bringing in strategic interests from a corporate VC impact that equation?”

Herskowitz: “It is a good question. I do not think it is necessarily about corporate VC versus traditional VC. If it is a venture capital funded effort, then there is still going to be a CEO who is running the company. There needs to be alignment between the CEO and the scientific founder, at least in those initial years, where there is a lot of interaction between the scientific founder and the company. Over time, obviously, the company is going to grow and mature, and will probably need the founding scientist less and less. But in those initial years, it is really important that they have the kind of understanding and transparency that any relationship requires, whether it is a marriage or a business partnership or a tech transfer-founded company. It is perhaps less critical when it is a licence to a big biopharma company, which makes sense. When you are licensing something to Merck, Pfizer or Genentech, they have thousands and thousands of people working on thousands of drug candidates at any time. And while they are still going to be interacting with the university scientists for the basic biology or some of the initial chemical insights, pretty soon they are going to be doing their own work. It is less about that management team harmony.”

Heles: “That makes sense. New York was sadly one of the hardest hit places, early on in the pandemic anyway. It seems to have stabilised. I can see it looks like you are working from home at the moment. How has the pandemic affected your work other than being stuck in a home office?”

Herskowitz: “Obviously, this pandemic has been awful for humanity, I do not need to dwell on that. There are no real upsides to covid. In terms of professionally, I think there are some ways that this has changed our tech transfer world in negative ways, and in some ways, it has actually been positive.

“On the negative side, the lab closures were the hardest thing to work through then. In those months, faculty across the university were shut out from their work. Even as it has been starting to reopen, it has been at a limited capacity. There are projects that we have funding for that cannot progress because either the faculty member cannot come to the lab or more that the faculty members, international graduate students, cannot get back into the country to continue their work. The schedules have been blown out of the water. Even people who have the funding to do things cannot necessarily progress them. Initially more so than now, we lost some projects that had been in negotiation for quite some time as the investors or the companies got skittish about their budgets.

“But we have seen that many of those have now come back and are now back on track, which is exciting to see. We did not know how long that skittishness would last but what we are hearing from the venture investors is that they are going to fund their projects and they have got their fund, the science is still great. When this pandemic is over there is still going to be a need for cancer drugs and macular degeneration therapies and diagnostics and imaging. So those are now getting back on track. Plus, I think the continued appetite for biotech IPOs and now tech IPOs is helpful too. Universities and hospital systems are facing some really serious budget challenges that have come out of the covid pandemic, from student tuition to donations, to hospital revenues, to grant funding, indirect costs. We will see where that plays out.

“The positive, though, is, in some ways, actually the same scrapped schedules – like everyone’s calendar got decimated. What that means is it is actually much easier to get on people’s calendars now than it used to be. Back when there was an expectation of seeing someone face to face. The typical conversation with a VC would go, ‘so nice to meet you, that was a great conversation, next time I am in Boston, or you are in New York, let’s get together, how does four months from now work?’ Now we are having conversations with VCs where we go from an introductory call on day one to a meeting with my licensing team on day three to discussions with the faculty on day six. That kind of flexibility and speed, I think, could be a long-term outcome of this.

“It is very hard to imagine going back to a world where we are willing to trade the much better in-person intimacy for a six-month delay. If you have got a project, if you are working on a cancer therapy for a disease that kills 100,000 people a year, every month delay is 8,000 lives lost once the drug comes to market. So, is it really worth waiting for that first meeting for three months, just because you can do it in person? We all said yes until this, but I think we are now much more fluid and comfortable in Zoom. So that may change things.

“We have a team working on a challenge – the engineering school ran a covid challenge, a hackathon for covid, around vaccines – they are working on a new design for a glass vial, that would be cheaper and easier and more rugged to make, because apparently there is a worldwide shortage of glass at the moment. Being able to help the student teams find mentors and advisors from industry with a few clicks of a mouse and get someone on the phone or on a Zoom call who happens to be running the glass vial manufacturing for a place like Corning, would have taken months before. Now you can do that in a couple of days. It is truly remarkable. So we will see. I really do not know where this will all net out, but it has not affected us in the way that we thought.

“One area that is interesting, and I am curious if you have seen this as well, it has led to a level of informality with both internal staff and the outside world that I think is good, in the sense that, we in our field used to put VCs on a pedestal and everything was very formal and structured. Now once you have seen the inside of someone’s living room, and you have seen them on a bad hair day, and trying to eat lunch on a Zoom meeting right in front of you like six inches from the camera, it is very hard to go back to that kind of formality. I think that is good, but we will see.”

Heles: “I have had the experience where I have seen someone just working from a shed in their garden, and it was a very nice shed, it is clearly kitted out to be an office. I thought it was charming, just to know they are not sitting on the 47th floor in a high rise somewhere with glass windows overseeing a city but sitting in the shed in a garden and probably got the kids screaming outside. It kind of endeared me…”

Herskowitz: “I literally have had a meeting where someone was sitting, not using the bathroom, but in their bathroom, because they said at the beginning of the meeting, it looks like I am in a bathroom because I am in a bathroom. The reason I am in a bathroom is that I have three kids at home, and they are all zooming, and I am in an apartment in New York City, and there is nowhere else to go. So I am in the bathroom with the door shut and you are just going to have to live with it. Maybe it is the equivalent of frat brothers or military service or something, but it is very hard to go back from that and pretend that we are merely professional colleagues.”

Heles: “That is very true. Something slightly different. You have a bachelor’s degree in English, whereas many of your colleagues will have a background in science or law. Asking as someone who has also got a Bachelor’s in English – and I never realised spinouts or licensing was a thing until I joined this publication six years ago – how did you end up in this position? What has your journey been like to Columbia Tech Ventures?

Herskowitz: “I am an English major. I am actually an English major, married to an English major. My wife is now an English professor. Her name is Dora Ahmad, she teaches at St. John’s University in New York, and I am enormously proud of her work. She jokes that she stayed on the path and I strayed from the path. It is true in a sense, but on the other hand – and I do not know what your experience has been – I found that when I first joined Columbia, I was very nervous about not being a scientist or an attorney. I think like many people taking on a new job, you always have this imposter syndrome.”

Heles: “Does it go away?”

Herskowitz: “So at least in my case, it was more about me accepting it than it ever going away. When I took the job, I bought Genetics for Dummies, Chemistry for Dummies, Biology for Dummies – my whole bookshelf was basically for dummies, which is a little bit of a disquieting feeling when you look at your bookshelf and you realise that the most common word there is ‘dummies’.

“After a couple of years of trying to pretend I was something I was not, trying to really dig into the science and trying to really understand the law, I actually think that humanities degrees – for me the English major, but I am sure it is probably the same in philosophy or others – is actually really, really good training for this field and probably for many fields. In many ways, what the humanities train you to do is, it is about synthesis, it is about interpretation, it is about comfort in the lack of facts, it is leading with hypotheses and being able to work with those hypotheses, it is about communication and storytelling. In many ways, that is actually a pretty good match for what we do in a tech transfer office. God forbid, if I had a whole office full of English majors, we would get nothing done, but thankfully, I have an amazing team of scientists and attorneys who work in our office.

“Someone needs to understand the science. Every tech transfer office suffers from the same challenges of when you are sitting in front of that firehose of 400 inventions coming in the year plus a couple of thousand you have already filed on, you are never going to have full certainty. You have the scientific facts behind the invention, but is that invention going to work in the market? Where does this fall in the companies’ roadmaps? Are there other companies out there that are trying to do the same thing, either in your approach or using an entirely different approach? Are the economics going to work? Are customers going to want this? Are patients going to be willing to try it? There is never enough data, you can never know enough.

“If you think about the average venture capital portfolio, what you hear anecdotally is that of 10 inventions, seven will fail outright, two will be medium successes and one will be a blockbuster that pays for the whole portfolio. Those odds are orders of magnitude worse for us, because we celebrate when we become one of those 10 inventions in a venture capital portfolio, our stuff is even higher risk. In the end, there is never going to be enough data, we could spend the rest of our lives analysing 100 inventions, and we will never have enough data to be certain about their success. You just have to have hypotheses, you have to rely on pattern recognition, you have to have a sense of being able to talk to people and understand their perspectives and hear about their experiences. It is a lot of storytelling and a lot of matchmaking.

“It is true in tech transfer, but I am guessing it is true in a lot of fields, as you get more seniority in the field, or have a broader swath of responsibility, that kind of pattern recognition and synthesis and hypothesis generation becomes an increased part of your job. So, I very much feel like I am still relying on the skills from my humanities background. They are still put to the test every day. I ask a lot of dumb questions of the scientists, and I now finally comfortable saying this is a question from the dummies. Pretend I know nothing about this, because I do not.”

Heles: “I imagine sometimes that is helpful, because you are basically your own little focus group. If you ask the dumb questions, you want to get those out of the way because no one else might have thought of the dumb question before. I imagine that can be quite helpful to the scientist as well, because if they have spent 25 years researching this one little thing in DNA and they are expert in that one domain, then they do not see the dumb picture that it might be a part of.”

Herskowitz: “Yeah. Probably one of my favourite things to do, and I do not get to do it as much as I would like, but one of my favourite things to do is to help our scientists practice their pitches for when they are going to launch their company. I am not really a proxy for a venture capitalist, because a venture capitalist who is hearing a pitch on photonics, probably understands photonics. A venture capitalist who is potentially going to invest in a DNA sequencing technology, I am guessing has a pretty good background in it. They are not asking, ‘I am sorry, how does this work?’

“But on the other hand, I do not have a lot of ego tied up in understanding the science. So being able to say, explain this to me like someone who does not understand this, and see if you can do that in 60 seconds, because that is how much time you got. Explain this to a layperson in 60 seconds, let’s try that. That is really fun. When I came to Columbia, I said I was going to take classes. We are allowed to take classes for free and it seems like an enormous privilege to be able to do that in a place like Columbia. In 15 years, I have never managed to make that happen. But on the other hand, I feel like I am taking 400 mini classes a year because of these inventions. Being able to hear little snippets of how this stuff works and why it is important and how it is going to change the world has been an enormous privilege.”

Heles: “This is my favourite question, and it is the one that people usually hate the most. What are some of your favourite companies that have come out of Columbia or a technology that has stuck in in your mind as being particularly cool?”

Herskowitz: “I can see why people do not like that. All of our children are beautiful and above average.

We are obviously very, very proud of a lot of the technologies that have emerged from Columbia and become either successful startups on the path to success or that have actually achieved market success. I mentioned Schrödinger. We have others in drug discovery, like Darwin Therapeutics, which was launched a few years ago from Dr Andrea Califano in the Medical Centre. We have startups out there working on diabetes and cancer. It is almost impossible to say which ones we are most proud of… And the physical sciences where there is not a patient at the end of this – we have a phenomenal technology portfolio of cybersecurity inventions and startups. When you think about one of the greatest threats facing our society in the future that is non-medical, the ways to understand and protect our data and the data of businesses from malicious hacks or even just things getting out into the net is incredibly important.”

“It is really hard to pick one. I would say two categories that we feel very strongly about. It has been really amazing to work with our researchers across the university on the covid-related inventions. All of the life science technologies we are working are incredibly important, but as I mentioned earlier this is often an eight to 15 year journey before things get in the hands of the end users.

“It was phenomenal when this first broke. New York was really, really scary in March and April, and we were getting calls from the hospitals saying, We cannot buy face shields, can you make us some? And also, how about HEPA filters? Can you make a thermometer? These are things that you would like to believe hospital systems have access to. The global supply chain was broken and to see Columbia’s engineers and clinicians and life science researchers step out of their comfort zones and drop everything they were working on to try and face the challenges that were hitting our city that day. Not only just them but my team completely reoriented, they dropped everything they were doing. They were working nights and weekends. Everybody was just pitching in to try and find commercial parties.

“We were doing things like trying to find contract manufacturers that could make these face shields and then working with those contract manufacturers to find plastic suppliers, because there was a global shortage of the plastic that was required. We were calling around to different hospitals to try and figure out what designs worked best. Melissa Cohen from the General Counsel’s Office at Columbia turned around a, what we call, ‘use it for free, do not sue us’ licence, which was basically, here is a face shield, there is enough in this license that we feel like we are covered, but use at your own risk, and godspeed. She did that in 24 hours. Those masks went from a design on the desk of an engineer and a clinician to having hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of units in hospital systems around the world in two weeks.

“You talk about 15 to 17 years for a typical therapeutic, and a two week turnaround in the time of covid. If we can take some of those lessons and figure out: how do we apply those to our normal SOPs? How do we get innovation out at that speed in the future? It could have an incredibly radical impact on the future of human health. If we can just get it right. My peers and I from other institutions are just starting to have those conversations now about what lessons we can take away from this that can potentially change our industry, and really make an impact on society in a positive way. What can we learn from this tragedy that can hopefully help prevent future tragedies?

Heles: “You have sort of touched on my next question there, which was what key lessons you have learned in your time at CTV and what areas of tech transfer you think need to be improved upon still, other than speed?”

Herskowitz: “There have been a handful. I will just say some that come to mind. One of the great pleasures of working in this field is that it is truly non-competitive. People think of the universities as being competitors with each other. I think in many ways they are. They compete for federal grants, they compete for students, they compete for faculty, but in our field, it is incredibly open, and friendly and sharing. We work together.

“I work with my peers at Stanford, and Harvard, and Yale, and Penn and UMichigan and Caltech and the UC system and University of Florida, Duke, University of Kentucky. We have peers across the country who are more than happy to share everything they have learned. Not only about the specifics, so we might write in our industry email list to say, ‘hey, everyone, we are doing a deal in the Crispr space. We have never done a deal in Crispr before. Does anyone have any lessons learned, not specifics, not about the actual financial terms, but just structurally, what are ways to make this work well? What are some common pitfalls? How do we work in the industry?’ Or people might say, ‘I am working with a venture firm I have never worked with before, has anyone worked with them that can give some recommendations on how to work best with them to get things done quickly’.

“Also in the macro sense of, when I joined, I spent the first six months just talking to my peers at other institutions saying, How do you make material transfer agreements go faster? How do you make decisions about patents? We stole our whole patent decision process from Yale. Jon Soderstrom had a great way of doing patent decisions and we figured why reinvent the wheel, we will just use theirs. The fellows program I mentioned earlier, was from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They had a fellows program for graduate student interns. We liked what we saw, so we took it and then we scaled it up to 35 students. It is operating at a much different scale. We have packaged up all of the learnings we have done from that programme, and made them widely available to any other university that asks. The version 2.0 of this fellows program is now being used at NYU and Penn and UCSF and many other places.

“It is an industry with a tradition of sharing best practices, or at least practices, as they are developed. None of us are in this for the money. We are just trying to make this work better. We are trying to get these innovations out of the lab and into the market for the benefit of society. The faster we can do that, the smoother we can do that, and the cheaper we can do that, the better off we all are.

“To that point, I would say the second piece is: this is really a volume game. To the point I made earlier about the English major, we feel great about some technologies, and we feel a little bit more unsure about others, but we are never 100% confident. So, our job is really to get stuff out into the hands of commercial parties that can do something with it as quickly as possible and as often as possible. I think that really requires a level of transparency with your counterparties. It requires a lot of humility on our part so that we do not get too attached to any specific invention, that we do not think we know everything about everything. And an understanding that this is a repeated game. Anybody we are talking to about a licence for a startup, that startup is going to be back, they are going to need an amendment to the licence, we are going to get something wrong, we will fix it later. If the relationship is strong, then we will come to the table and we will be friends still, and we will figure out a way around it. Even if that startup fails, that VC and that entrepreneur are going to be back in some other form. Trying to be good to each other and just find a way to work together in a streamlined way is hard, but it is worth it. That is where we spend a lot of our time.

Heles: “My last question is an open ended one. Is there anything that we have not covered yet that you want people to know about?”

Herskowitz: “I would be remiss if I did not say if anyone listening to this is interested in looking for some cutting-edge technology that would be available for licensing they should visit We have a great search engine in place that makes it very easy to look through all of our inventions based on which faculty, which topic area, which department, keywords taxonomies. So, check it out. It is very easy to navigate:

Heles: “Thank you very much for your time today, Orin.”

Herskowitz: “Okay, absolutely. Thank you.”

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).