cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Alice Li

Alice Li is the executive director of the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Cornell University and she joins us to discuss how the Ivy League institution remains agile and open to experimentation, what questions the profession needs to ask today to be prepared for the future and what the challenges and opportunities are for a university with multiple campuses.

She also reveals how she ended up in tech transfer and what changes she has seen over the past two decades working for CTL.


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Note: the intro and outro have been omitted.

Alice. Welcome to the podcast.

Thank you. Thank you so much for the invitation to join your podcast.

It is a great pleasure having you and I look forward to the conversation. To start with, can you give me an overview of CTL and perhaps Cornell more broadly because you have quite a few campuses as well?

Yes. Sure. CTL is the tech transfer office of Cornell University. Annually Cornell has a research expenditure of more than a billion dollars, and from all its campuses, including its main campus in Ithaca, Upstate New York, and two main campuses in New York City, while Cornell Medicine, the new campus, Cornell Tech.

At CTL what we do is manage IP, intellectual property, from Cornell and catalyse technology commercialization and promote the formation and growth of startup companies. Right now, we also manage the university gap funding series.

So, every year we receive over 400 invention disclosures, enter into 70 to a hundred licenses and options, and we create over 15 startup companies based on our technologies. Last year, our spinoffs raised more than $300m in funding. So, as you can see, we have many different types of research on different campuses, we have a very broad portfolio in our technology, from human health to engineering to IT, and also some in agriculture and veterinary medicine and also we embrace diverse, but very rich ecosystem, in the both urban and rural environment.

Amazing. We have quite a few initiatives, so I am going to ask you a few questions about those, starting perhaps with FastTrack Startup License. Can you tell me why this was created and what the feedback has been so far?

The FastTrack Startup License, we use that as a tool to support new ventures, obviously, and we have an experimental approach. So, we said, Maybe let us start it with some places small and see how that goes. So, we started with engineering and physical science. It is always the needs of the ecosystem, and particularly with new type of entrepreneurs, how much they feel uncomfortable about how transparent the licensing process is, how fair the terms they receive, how long it takes to negotiate a license.

So, all these things, I think people feel that the need to support the new startup process. So, with the design, we would get a lot of input from the VC community and entrepreneurs, and also inventors on campus. So, it was released about three years ago, and so far in this particular field, engineering and physical science, we already signed 11 licenses using the FastTrack. Comparing to the non-FastTrack of the startup, it is about a two to one ratio.

So, most people really like it. So far it is overwhelmingly positive feedback, how much they enjoyed it and how much they learned from this and easy it is. Particularly people felt like they felt the way when they plan things for the future. Because we post everything online. They can study that. They are not nervous about the future when they license it or what they can introduce their potential investors, what type of deal they can get.

So, with the success, actually right now, we are in the expanding phase of this. You will hear that in a month or so we are going to launch our other series in this FastTrack. One in the life science area. So, we are going to have some design for medical devices and also in biotech tools and diagnostics. So, that is another one coming up and yet even another one for maybe a software and copyrighted materials without patents. There is a series for that so we can get a quick FastTrack as well. So, coming soon just in a month.

I think this will probably go out in a couple of weeks at that point we may very well be much closer to that launch as well.

Expansion shows its success, I think.

Yes. Among your many other initiatives, you have the McGovern Center, the Praxis Center. You also have Venture eLabs, you have Ignite. Can you tell me a little bit more about these as well?

Yes. I will say all these programs are relatively new, which shows the growing interest of supporting startups and ventures in our community. So, among these, the one that has a little bit longer history is the McGovern Center, which is our life science incubator. It started about 10 years ago, has so far accepted more than 25 startup companies, and when they are incubating in this incubator raised more than $180 million in financing and funding for these companies.

One of their companies that graduated from the incubator is Embark. It is a company doing dog sequencing and genotyping. I do not know if you have a dog, you may have already heard about this. It is very popular with dog owners and breeders. Recently, in their series B they got a valuation of $700m. So, one of their successes.

Another one, a newer one, the Praxis Center is for physical science, IT and engineering. That is the very new one, is only about two years old, right now have seven companies in incubation. One of its stars is Ava Labs and is in cryptocurrency. Their token, AVAX, although this company is only just a couple years old is among the third heaviest traded thing in the crypto world right now, and we are actually also learning what that means in this new field. It is a learning process for all of us.

Venture eLab at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, that is about five years old and has many programmes, a competition programme, training programmes and our TTO Weill office worked very closely with them, they were involved in most of the startups there. So, it is certainly a growing presence.

Finally, you mentioned Ignite, which is our gap funding programme, which is managed by our office. So, this started maybe about for five years ago, but initially relatively small, maybe about 400,000 a year in funding. This year we are going through major extension to $3m a year — something we have been hoping for and fighting for in the past, quite a number of years.

So, with this major expansion it becomes a series: we have the proof-of-concept funding for labs to help the very early stage when the invention is just disclosed and protected. We also have a programme for a startup when it is just formed and in need of a little funding to prove their validation of their product in order for them to raise money. Also, there is a brand new programme we are launching, which is called Ignite Postdoc for Ventures. This one is connecting the lab to the startup and also in training of the entrepreneurs for the future. So, extremely excited for this, either expanding of the existing programmes, but also launching new programme in the gap funding area.

From $400,000 to $3 million, that is an expansion, that is significant.

Right. Certainly, with that opportunity comes responsibility. People are saying, Okay, we are tracking the result for the future, but then with the existing programme, we have a great result. For every $1 we put in, we got $40 back either to the funding or VC money. So, it is a great result. So that is why people are willing to give us more money. And also, in terms of the project for innovation and also for startup, for the next stage in reaching the inflection point, we have a success rate from 70 to 80% so far.

Wow. Phenomenal. I feel like I am just moving through your initiatives at the moment, but another one that I find quite interesting is the Women Innovators Initiative. Can you tell me more about what led to the creation of this? I do not know if you have any numbers about the impact, but if you do.

This one we just started last year. I can share with you the number which triggered this. We did some analysis of our inventors, our woman inventor rate is about 23%. Our women founders participation rate in our startups is about 18%. So, maybe compared to some other numbers you heard in different places, it is not too bad, but still pretty low.

So, this is one of the things we wanted to start to help women’s participation in both invention and also creation of startups. So, we only started last year and also at Weill there is a programme by the Bioventure eLab, there is Women Founders Initiative as well. So, all these together is to help more engagement from women, both for the innovation and startup process. So, there are various activities like series and webinars and events for the women innovator.

There are also mentor programmes, connecting them to women mentors. There are competitions for business plans. So, all these different activities supposed to help them. And also, I mentioned earlier on the Ignite funding, gap funding we have. We also want to leverage that to help the engagement of women inventors and entrepreneurs, not only women, but also other diversity initiatives in terms of participation about different groups.

How does your own office fare in terms of diversity?

I would say our office right now does have a reasonably diverse workforce? We have plenty of women in our office. For underrepresented minorities, we also have people in that group in leadership roles, and we do have them in various trainings to grow in their leadership roles. So, this one I am actually very proud now we practice our preaching.

So amazing. That is really good to hear. Cornell also has the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, since the name would suggest, I suppose, with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology to drive research, entrepreneurship and creation of deep tech startups. Can you speak a little bit more about this?

As you know, Cornell Tech is a brand new campus right in New York City. From its inception to its growth, to its current form, we are very excited, also generating a lot of enthusiasm about the digital world, about New York City’s engagement in the digital age. And it has a lot of new concepts with the establish of this new campus. So, it is combining research, innovation and education and entrepreneurship together in this campus for the digital age, and for the city as well.

So, Jacobs is part of Cornell Tech. Jacobs Institute is between Cornell and Technion as you mentioned. Within Jacobs, I think even among Cornell Tech, Jacobs is viewed as even more a place for radical experiment, so to combine research, education, entrepreneurship.

One of the things we work probably most close to is one of the programmes called Runway Startup Postdoc programme. I believe it is the first one in its kind launching, hiring postdocs to start companies. Technology and business incubation, education and training, everything together combined. I wanted to say interesting quote from Tom Kalil. He is a former deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In one of his talks, he said: okay, in addition to the traditional path of training for PhD and postdocs, he called this a third arm of training for entrepreneurial scientists and engineers.

Since its inception 2014, 2015, not only they created more than 40 companies, but the training of the entrepreneurs and in scientists, engineers really, really has a lot of influence. Actually, this is sort the inspiration for us when I was talking about one of the new programmes for Ignite, it is postdoc for ventures. So, we want to transform this model beyond digital, to additional hard science and also transform that to many different fields in different colleges and labs. I think it is one of the examples we use, as again radical experiment and expand and have more impact in other places as well.

As you said early days, have there been any noteworthy ventures that have come out of the Institute already?

Yes. So, I just maybe gave one example from the Runway Startup Postdoc programme. One company called Nanit, it is a smart baby monitor and it uses machine learning technologies to track a baby’s sleep pattern and helps parents to improve the sleep of their kid. So, I think recently the valuation about that is over a hundred million dollars I believe, and certainly products in the market and help many parents already.

That is amazing. That is a really good example. I like that. I liked the dog one earlier as well, but I like this one as well. A lot of experimentation, a lot of expansion. What is working well in Cornell’s ecosystem today? And what are the challenges?

Certainly, at Cornell, we have multiple campuses and different places. Particularly historically, I would say that it is hard to compete for capital and talent compared to Silicon Valley, compared to Boston. I would say in recent years, the ecosystem has been enriched tremendously, some of the examples we already talked about. We are also engaging brand new ways, very innovative ways to attract and train entrepreneurs.

So, right now, I do feel like both Upstate New York and also in New York City, the traction has grown tremendously, and we have seen growth in the funding that we can attract for our startups and also entrepreneurs we can attract for our startups. With that said, for the upstate place, I would say for a company, when they raise the later series of funding, many of them still move to California and Boston. So one side, we wanted the best path for the companies.

If they need to go, they need to go. They do not want it to prevent their growth. Hopefully in the future we can attain more of them, but even when they move out, I would say the entrepreneurship grows within those companies and it has a lot of return to the ecosystem for the next generation of entrepreneurs for funding.

So, it is really a lot enrichment for that. For New York City, I would say it has come to the stage. We felt like we can keep many of the companies in the New York City ecosystem, that is also a very encouraging sign.

That is an encouraging sign. Do you think that is going to improve as you build up your different initiatives campuses that are in New York as well?

I want to say we hope that will improve. With that said, we do see there will be still some migration. There will be always a level of that, but hopefully there is going to go to some critical mass in the region, for the future. We do have a lot of hope.

We also, our initiative grows beyond the very early stage, and the initiative between Cornell and also the state and other places we want to also move to the next stage initiative maybe to help the company stay, in terms of real estate, in terms of the structure to support them and things like that.

I imagine, especially in New York City space is at a premium. What is your view of New York City or New York state and the US ecosystem more broadly? How do you think it compares to international peers?

In terms of, maybe more generally for the US. And I think it is maybe generally viewed that the US has been leading this innovation and maybe venture side for a long time and first is through this policy point of view in terms of vital in early days, and also in terms of the VC community and how many companies have been created historically. I would say in recent years, many other countries have been growing significantly. So, that means maybe the gap is smaller now, or maybe even level field now. With that, we certainly talk to many people in other countries in Europe, and then UK, we have with our colleagues in other university, Cambridge and Oxford certainly, and also in other growing economy, and in Asia, in Singapore, India, China. And sometime the capital and then structure growths and support for entrepreneurship for new ventures, I would say it is really eye opening the level of support get. I think from that and in the US to keep us at the front of the innovation. So certainly, it is come to a stage where we all grow together.

How to keep us on the leading space together with others is certainly need a lot of work. I think the recent path of the Endless Frontier Act may be one of the ways the government, at least how they look into that to keep the US competitive, and for people like us in a university tech transfer and in innovation, when we think about ways not only support innovation, certainly we need to support innovation in the marketplace, in startups, but when we do things, how we ourselves can be innovative in the things we do to support innovation growth at ongoing challenges for ourselves.

That makes sense. I did have a question about what your view is of where tech transfer is headed in the next decade or two, so I might just jump ahead to that, or maybe innovation in general. What do you think this will look like in 2030 or 2040?

I think that is probably a question on everybody’s mind.

That is why I am asking it.

I wish I had a crystal ball. Let me talk about in different levels. In tech transfer certainly, that has continued changing in the past 20 years. So, originally when I started in this career path, it is probably more focused on IT, and then maybe on commercialization and these days very heavily in supporting startup creation and growth. Now we are also maybe engaged to some level local economic development and also corporate engagement, collaboration, and so on and so forth. It really keeps changing.

The next decade or more, and the startup side I think may be two sides I will see the structure continue changing. One is, on the one side of startup, we have been focusing on startups based on our technologies, technology driven startups, but how that will maybe play with the general entrepreneurship of the students training for the future.

That is one and also how that plays with regional economic development. I think this will be an evolving and changing part on the start of venture side. The corporate side, historically we have been playing this place licensing technologies and also some in terms of sponsored research from corporations. But overall, on the research side, how we engage corporations, collaborations, open innovation system, that is another maybe thread as well. I would say that the structure of tech transfer probably will keep evolving. It may not have a silver bullet the same for everyone. I would say different universities, probably the structure will evolve differently. I would say based on your culture, your research, what type of research, your region and your pain point. So, I would say that probably will evolve.

Generally broadly, but in exactly what structure to support the university may be somewhat different. And also, I would say even the word tech transfer itself. We use word tech transfer. I think it is heavily debated what it should be called, and there are many new names has been proposed behind doors and many a director said, it should be called A, B and C and it has not been changed. I think it is because people have not agreed on whatever new names this need to be. And so, the word tech transfer itself means many things.

It keeps evolving. It is a changing time, but also exciting time for that. Maybe too overall innovation, I think this is maybe less clear, but I am keen maybe on two specific fronts. One is technology’s role in innovation and how to shape a future economy. On one side, there is this view and many supporting ways of doing that too, is technology may be an equalizer in the way of what it can provide to different people in those resources and connections and for different populations and for different parts of the globe.

On the other hand, many people argue technology could be a divider because when you put capital, when you are different talent in these what population it is actually engaged to grow the future economy, it could be a divider as well. So, as people working in this field, tech transfer is only a very small part of that I understand. We are all leading marketplace, certainly.

What role it plays, we need to really be conscientious about this with the different maybe directions and how what role we can place in shaping up how technology influences the general population, and also the global economy. I think that is the one higher level of thought and we need to be conscientious about beyond our tech transfer.

Another thing, it is probably also at a broader level, technology has come to a stage that it is shaking up how this society in many aspects is organized and the way we even view jobs and how we view work for the future, how that impacts humanity is also changing. So, certainly this current pandemic has posed such questions on people, how work, job means to us in the future, how we are going to be organized together for that and also fundamentally how we are going to get connected together.

Personally, I do not have a clear answer for that, and I am certainly observing and see how this is going, but I think it is almost certain something will be changed in that, something will have dramatically changed maybe in 20 years. I think when we are working in technology, we really need to remain very open and humble about this, and also really learn from what could be happening, what is changing and really remain humble and ready to adapt and support this new future for the overall humanity.

I think you are certainly asking a lot of the right questions. So that is really interesting to hear. I lost my own train of thought there…

Because that is the main challenge we all face together. Where are we on that path together. But hopefully we are all together in that path, I would say.

As you said, you have been doing this for a couple of decades. You have been at Cornell since 2002 and you took over CTL in 2014, first as interim, and then permanently in 2016. How did you get into technology transfer? And why did you join Cornell specifically?

Cornell has a deeper root actually. I got my PhD at Cornell. I was trained here. This was my home when I first come to the US. So, it is my alma mater. So, with that connection, certainly I have loved Cornell. And after my degree actually, I was working in a startup company in New Jersey, not too far.

So, that is where I got exposed to IP, fundraising and building products. So, it was a very successful experience actually. After that company, when we moved back to Ithaca and Cornell, that is actually a common, modern day phenomenon is called, dual career.

My husband is faculty at the engineering school and I wanted to stay with business, but at the time there were not too many startups, right now actually we are much richer in our startup community. So, at the time we thought to connect from academia to business, and tech transfer seemed to be a natural place for me at that time.

So, it piqued my interest. I joined and have been really enjoying the journey. Particularly in the past 20 years, as we discussed, so much change in tech transfer. Many new initiatives and experiments we are doing. I am glad Cornell is a place that is very openminded in pursuing these new directions.

So, it has been a lot of fun thing to do when we broaden our function and be more supportive, more engaged in startups and the innovation system.

I certainly can see how an institution’s willingness to expand and experiment with initiatives can convince you to stay in a job, because nothing like getting boring.

Even right now actually, even the just past few years, and I mentioned our gap funding, our startup process, the incubators, all in the past a few years. We are living in a very exciting time.

Is there anything you would say to someone who is starting out in tech transfer today?

In general, we talked about the field. We talked about innovation and certainly it is a very inspiring field, but nonetheless, it keeps changing right. To some people this is an uncertain path sometimes. So, I think people need to have some mindset growing with this profession and the best practice you learn today may not be the best practice in five years anymore. People that in this field, actually regardless young or old, experienced or just joined the profession, we all need to stay very open minded. We need to always ready to learn and experiment and really supporting the overall innovation system in New York local community and in the country and also globally.

I want that on a poster above my desk. Best practice today might not be the best practice in five years. I think that is very profound.

That is very important, we all learn from each other. So, I think that we are learning here in our profession with AUTM, also people LES in the licensing from the companies, but also from the VCs, entrepreneur community. Also, in general, what the world needs, but also in other countries. I am actually very happy to see this increasing collaboration and learning across continents with Europe, with Asia in how to shape the world for the future.

I know, you have mentioned a few companies over the course of our discussion, Embark, the crypto company as well. Are there any examples of startups that you are particularly proud of either for impact or financial success or both?

Maybe a couple of ones. Pacific Bio with the sequencing and genetic space that right now has a market cap of $6 billion, certainly a successful startup from our engineering school. Another one I want to mention that maybe has a more local impact is called Kionix is for the space of MEMS sensor for cars and other devices.

This one is a company started locally and stayed locally and producing all these products locally, has employed hundreds of people, high paying jobs. The original entrepreneur and CEO donates back to Cornell, became a Cornell trustee and also mentoring many new CEOs of Cornell startups.

I would say that that one particularly is very close to us, to the community as well. We particularly want to have more examples like that for the future as well.

Amazing. That almost means we are out of time. Is there anything else we have not covered that you want people to know about Cornell?

I think probably most of the areas we already covered. Overall speaking, I would say that it is certainly one of the Ivy League schools, but a very unique one, both has its endowed part and also public part. And also, we have very diverse environment, upstate like rural and also New York city, urban places. Even in New York City, that was Weill established for a long time with a brand new, digital presence for Cornell Tech.

I think Cornell itself maybe example you saw these global places with all very diverse background and environment and how we approach that together. We are using a very innovative way approaching the future together and very collaboratively as one Cornell, even with different environment backgrounds, but together we want to create the great future for education and research innovation for Cornell.

Given that it is somewhat similar to other maybe big picture of the world with a very diverse environment and history and everything there with maybe a goal of working together for the future.

From our conversation, I think Cornell is in good hands with you. Obviously, you have been there for quite a long time. I think the university probably agrees with that statement.

I have been working with so many amazing people here, certainly with the leadership, with my colleagues and other people. Many of the programmes I mentioned are not necessarily CTL. We work with a so very rich ecosystem, and it is really an amazing place. I think that together again, we hope to have a better future.

Alice, it has been a huge pleasure to talk to you and learn more about Cornell and CTL. Thank you so much for joining me.

Thank you so much again for the invitation. It is really a pleasure talking with you, and I hope to keep this as a pathway to learn more about this practice globally as well.

Thank you.

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).