Amir Naiberg has been the associate vice-chancellor and CEO and president of UCLA Technology Development Group since 2016, when he joined from having led Yeda, the tech transfer arm of Weizmann Institute of Science.
He joins us to discuss the responsibilities of leading the tech transfer office of the US’s number one ranked public university and to ponder the intricacies of being part of a larger university system.
He also tells us about the differences between Israel and the US, tackles the criticism, uncovered by the UC Regents, that UC campuses can be difficult to negotiate with, and admits that remote working has made it more challenging to find tech transfer practitioners.
And because you cannot talk about Los Angeles without thinking of Hollywood, he also reveals why the snowflakes in Frozen did not generate any licensing income.
Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.
Amir, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you, Thierry, for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be here.
It is a pleasure to have you. To start with, can you give me an overview of UCLA TDG and some key figures, if you have them?
Sure. When we speak about technology transfer, first of all, we need to look at the institutions that we serve because we are not an island. So, UCLA is the number one ranked public university in the US with a research budget of more than $1.6bn, that is billion with a B, and working hard together in the area of $1.7bn this year. It just shows you the quality of our faculty and the breadth and depth of the research done at UCLA.
We take that huge research organization and translate it into invention disclosures. It means that on average, we get about 400 invention disclosures a year, anywhere from traditional pharmaceuticals to biomedicine, physics and everything in between. We are able to translate that to about 50 exclusive licenses and options a year. We have a huge activity for MTAs, material transfer agreements. We do about 1500 of those a year. We are able to now bring about $60m to $70m in industry sponsored research, and the list just goes on and on. So, it is a really, really big activity supporting the research organization that is doing so well in UCLA in recent years.
You said number one in the US. How does your work fit into the wider UC system?
AIt is a benefit and a challenge. The benefit is that in the UC system, we have 10 campuses and two national labs. That is one of the best support systems for technology transfer. So, if we have a question we want to look into, new developments in the way people do business, we always have our peer group to talk to and we meet on a regular basis and exchange views and best practices. That is an awesome feature of the system.
On the flip side, the UC system can be viewed as very bureaucratic. I think we probably will talk about it a little bit later. The regents’ working group pointed out that UC system is maybe viewed by the outside world as being tough to negotiate with. I think that is attributed to the fact that there are some functions in our system that are still centralised. So, some of the challenges come from the fact that that decentralization process is not complete. Some things that we need to do very locally are still practiced on a systemwide basis.
Are there any elements that you would like to copy from other TTOs within UC or something that you think they would benefit taking over from you?
I came to UCLA from Israel, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, leading the very high quality, but fairly small tech transfer office. What I used to do, and I am still doing, is remind myself all the time that technology transfer is a very local business. It is a business that is attached to the local ecosystem. No, copying is not kind of the right verb to use here, more inspirational.
We are always looking into best practices and things that other campuses are doing worldwide, and see how we can adapt and change it to feed our local ecosystem. Just to give you some examples. We have a programme called Startup in a Box. We did not invent it, but we tailored it to our needs, to our faculty needs, where we are helping some of our faculty launch their first business by connecting them to investors, to lawyers, to accountants that can guide them through this process.
Our community is a very collaborative community, so when someone launches a new program, they are always happy to share, and we are always glad to take it in and implement it and adapt it to our own local system. I can tell you that one of the novel things that UCLA has done recently, and we are happy to share that, is the concept of how to reach through the product-developing university to underserved communities. We received a request from a student advocacy group telling us, look guys, you need to look at the broader picture here.
It is great that you are helping bring products to the market, but you also need to look at underserved communities where may not be able to afford these great products and medicines of tomorrow. So, we went into a journey with a WHO organisation called Medicines Patent Pool, MPP. We agreed with them on the language that puts the university in a position of a facilitator, a facilitator between our industrial partners, and there are no products and no new drugs in the market without industrial products, without VCs, but where we will be able in the future to facilitate a dialogue between the various advocacy groups and our licensee.
We are successfully implementing this language in our license agreements, and we recently received several requests from other peer institutions to learn how we are doing this, with the thought they are able to implement a similar concept in their own licenses.
When you say some parts are centralized in the UC system, and other parts are obviously handled by the individual offices, is that something that you expect to stay this way? Do you think more responsibility will come to the individual TTOs as you evolve tech transfer?
If you look at the ten campuses right now, most of them have a very sophisticated tech transfer office and the regents’ working group looking at the I&E ecosystem throughout the UC system. I am not sharing any secrets here, their discussions are open to the public, came up with the report, basically lined up a roadmap to say these are the remaining functions of the centralized office, of the office of the president that needs to be decentralized to campuses. So, I think that in the next two or three years, we will see this process of decentralizing some central functions to campuses being completed.
One of the initiatives that you do run locally is the UCLA Innovation Fund. Can you tell me a little bit about this one?
Sure. We started with this programme about four years ago. It was seeded by money received from the state of California, AB 2664, and then additional funds came from our chancellor and vice chancellor for research. The core concept behind this is the classical bridging the gap, bridging the chasm, whatever name you want to give it that every tech transfer office encounters, where we have great early-stage technologies based on great basic science, but require some additional investment and guidance to make sure that they become an investible opportunity.
I think that what we are doing perhaps a little bit differently than other campuses is our very close partnership with the deans, with the academic deans of the school of medicine, with the colleges of physical sciences, with the college of life sciences. They agreed to invest some of their own money in this activity, but they came up with a very interesting condition.
They told us, we want to have another stage or another phase in your funnel. We want to make sure that the applications that you support really have really good science behind them, and that is a different question than the commercial aspects of it. The way we go about and finding our opportunities is by having an open call for proposals to our campus.
Then the first stage is like an NIH study group, where all the applications are being peer reviewed for the merit of their science, and only the applications that go through this first stage overview are pitched to a panel of investors and industry experts that are looking into market condition and competitive landscape. I think this gives us this two-stage sourcing process and gives us this additional edge or additional capability to really choose well, make wise decisions on the projects that we will support.
How easy or not is it generally to find capital for UCLA companies?
It is changing. It really is changing. I will tell you an interesting story. One of the first things that I have done coming to UCLA was to go and meet with the leadership of Amgen at Thousand Oaks. If you know the geography of California, that is not that far from West LA. With traffic, it may take an hour to an hour and a half to get there.
Everything in LA does, I think.
Yes. So, I met the leadership team. I told them, hey guys, it was easier for me to meet you in Israel than it is for us to meet in California because everybody is so afraid from traffic. When you travel internationally, you make the time and you go and visit with other academic institutions and tech transfer offices. As a result of that meeting, a new event was born. It is called now LABEST, and the concept behind it was to bring all the stakeholders in LA County to a single location.
We were able to grow this event from 300 people, and this would probably be over a thousand by invitation only. So, to make a long story short, the time was right for LA to become a leader in sourcing capital. We now have some local VC funds specializing in the LA County or LA metropolitan area. I recently saw recent Pitchbook data, as far as VC investment in our county, we reached Boston which is now considered to be a hub for VC investment. We think that we are in the trajectory to pass them just based on the quality and the numbers of academic institutions and leading hospitals we have in our county.
What about talent? Is that easy to come by? Are there enough people wanting to work for startups in LA?
That is still a challenge because we do not have the density that some of the big traditional tech hubs have, like the Bay Area, even San Diego, obviously Boston. So that is a challenge. Although once people come to LA, they fall in love in with the weather in the area, but it is hard to convince them because they do not have the density of peer talent or even looking for the next job after the startup company and the cost of living in LA is also not cheap.
So, there are several organizations looking into this issue of talent. One is Bioscience LA. Another one where I am a board member is the Alliance for Southern California Innovation. All of these think tanks and work groups are thinking on how we can bring more talent to LA County, and Southern California in general, to support the needs of our startup companies.
Do your startups generally try and stay in LA then when they are founded, or do they move on up to Silicon Valley or maybe Boston or elsewhere?
This is also changing. When I arrived in LA five years ago, the pattern was startup was being created, perhaps their first year or so is spent in a local incubator, but then as soon as they get their first big A round, they will probably relocate, most of the time to the Bay Area because it is the closest. Now we are seeing in front of our eyes, the formation of one significant hub for cell therapy, where LA is becoming a global leader in startup companies dealing with cell therapy and they tend to stick around.
They tend to stay in our area. We have more and more incubators and spaces for growth companies, and capital now becoming more readily available at least for life sciences. So, we find that more and more of these companies stick around and stay next to the talent that created them.
How easy or not is it to find staff for your own office in LA?
AN: That is a challenge, but I recently came back from the AUTM annual conference, and it seems that everyone in our industry is looking for talent. It is very, very challenging. We are competing for talent with the big tech companies, with biotechs and so on. For an academic institution that is almost impossible competition. We are trying very hard, but it is not easy to recruit talent. Hopefully one of the things we learn from COVID is that at least partially we can work remotely. Currently my office is working on a hybrid model where people have to come into the office only twice a week. So, that allows us to cast a wider net and find people that perhaps will otherwise be reluctant to get into a car and spend two hours in traffic and say, If I only do it twice a week, it is not that bad. Currently the market for talent is very, very hard and it is hard, very hard, to find experienced people.
Is that something that has historically been true as well? Or is that a recent development?
I think historically it was easier to find perhaps people with two to three years of experience that would say, We do not want the lifestyle of consulting or big tech companies where we have to be on planes all day and the work life balance was not that good and they say, Okay, we are willing perhaps to take a salary cut and spend some time in academia and learn a very interesting, a unique profession. We are not seeing that that often these days. I think, again, this is one of the influences of covid that even all the big consulting firms, bigger firms and so on, they are also allowing more flexibility to their staff. So, people are less inclined to move out of there.
Do you run any student internship programmes or PhD programmes to get staff into TDG?
Yes, we do. What we learned over time is that that line of being a student intern in TDG really helps students secure their first job out of college or out of grad schools. We have a number of programs like that. We have one program of tech fellows.
They help our business development team first of all, in formulating and drafting the non-disclosure, one pager documents we have for each technology. They will help prepare quick PowerPoint decks that we can use for presentations. They also help just in reaching out and finding the appropriate people and nudge them with opportunities.
Another program that we have with our new venture group and that student group helps our innovation fund that we mentioned earlier and walk faculty that are accepted to that program through the process of building a pitch deck and finding some market comparables, understanding what the competition is and building a true commercial deck, or a deck that translates science into commercial, actionable items.
All of these programs are working very well. We also have a few students that just come and help us with data entry and so on because we are a data intensive industry. That is definitely one of the biggest advantages of working next to a big university where we could find anything, from graduate students to MBA students, all are eager to get their feet wet and get experience in the things that we are doing.
How big is your office at the moment? How many staff do you have?
Fully staffed, we should be 50 strong. Fortunately, in the last year or so, we have been hovering around 46, 47 people. It is not as bad in some of the upper offices, but we really want to be fully staffed again.
I can understand that. You touched on the UC Regents report earlier. I think it is called From Discovery to Societal Impact. It said that faculty across the campuses want their entrepreneurship valued and celebrated more. It said, as you said, the UC system can be considered a difficult partner, and its general inclination toward caution circumscribes its ability to take advantage of business opportunities.
How are you supporting this culture shift towards more entrepreneurialism at UCLA?
When you speak about 10 campuses and UC systems, it is sometimes hard. You may get lost and lose sight of the granular picture of each campus. I think the UCLA campus is a very well positioned to capture I&E activity. We have many, many faculty members who are very entrepreneurial. Having said that, we are always building programs and trying to reach out to faculty who either do not want to be entrepreneurs or do not know how. Let me tell you about two of these programs. One is Faculty Innovation Fellows.
That is a programme we run together with Startup UCLA. What we have done there is to take a program that was designed for undergrad students for their summer accelerator program, and with our good friend, Startup UCLA, we have converted that program into an educational program for faculty. So, instead of a quick summer accelerator, this is a few months long, which really teaches them how to go about and form their first business from a very methodical educational point of view. Similarly, we are very close to our campus bio design programme, where faculty from UCLA Health are able to explore and find problems on campus and then offer a novel solution for them.
That has proven to be a very good pipeline for our innovation fund, novel solutions to known problems for people who live in hospitals. Now, additionally, we are working very hard in building longer term relationships with some of our local investors, entities like Autobahn, or even Amazon that recently announced it is building a centre with UCLA for AI.
So, all of these, let us call them, structures that are already in place reduce the friction and hopefully allow faculty that otherwise will say, I do not know what to do, to go and be an entrepreneur. We say, you do not need to take all of that work on yourself because we have these structures ready and we can help you find your first CEO, or work in a very seamless and smooth way with industry. So, the structures with entities like Amazon, Cisco and Autobahn Labs really help increase the circle of people that are willing to engage in this type of activity.
How do you generally entice corporate partners to come to UCLA? What gets them to pay attention to you?
It is a lot of work from our faculty. What we bring these entities on our campuses is the quality of our faculty. As I mentioned, when we started, our faculty are just amazing, and they are able to bring and receive significant amounts of research dollars. So, that is becoming a known quality for the world. Then it is an open dialogue, and what we are able to say to these companies these days is,
We are so flexible that whatever business structure that you would like to build with us, we will try to accommodate that. There are some basic principles of licensing from an academic institution that we have to make sure that they are in our agreements, like the right to publish, like the industrial partner obligation to indemnify the university and things like that.
But other than that, whatever structure that works for our partner, we can probably find a good solution that will feed that structure. Through that ongoing dialogue with people in my office that are experts in their respective fields, from AI all the way through to drug development, we are able to build these longer-term relationships. Again, everything is based on the quality of our faculty and their research.
What are the challenges that remain the biggest challenge?
These days it is actually the sponsor terms for research. When I started working tech transfer almost 20 years ago, when we used to get an invention disclosure, we used to say, That is federal funding, that is governmental funding. No strings attached. We can license it out pretty quickly and smoothly, theoretical marching rights and so on, but everybody learned to live with that. These days, so many foundations have strings attached to their funding that just looking and doing internal diligence on an invention disclosure that we are about to license is very difficult, very challenging. Sometimes we find ourselves with conflicting terms because obviously when a faculty gets money to support the research, nobody thinks about the downstream effect.
That is great because at the end of the day, the job of universities is to do research, but then when something comes up and you have to fold it into a license and you have to look at all these strings that are attached to funding, you end up sometimes saying, Oh my God, I cannot license it because there are conflicting terms in these things.
We find ourselves doing more and more work, first of all, mapping these terms. Then speaking with foundations, hey guys, you are actually hurting your public mission in curing a certain disease or addressing a certain problem because of the terms you impose on your funding. That is taking more and more time and I would wish that we have some open dialogue and standardization of these terms with foundations that will allow everybody to serve their missions.
I can only imagine that is frustrating. I would have hoped that it has become easier over time, rather than the terms becoming more onerous and more complex.
Unfortunately, it is getting more and more complicated as time passes by because some of these foundations think in tech transfer, not only a mission of bringing products to the market, but also in a way to replenish the money that they invested or the money that they gave as philanthropy that makes life really complicated.
One other thing that is a complex problem at the moment is diversity and inclusion. How does UCLA fare when it comes to that?
There is incredible focus in UCLA about this issue. We are an urban campus operating in one of the most diverse cities in the world. So, there is an incredible focus on bringing first generations into our colleges. Even in our research organization, there is a work group looking on how to diversify the workforce in the administration.
We have a dashboard where every time we hire someone, we take a look at our dashboard, say, hey, we need to do better in this area and that area. It is a university-wide effort that is ongoing. We are already seeing the results of that effort.
That is really good to hear. I want to talk about your own career as well. You already mentioned you worked in Israel. You were general counsel of Yeda Research and Development at the Weizmann Institute. Then you became CEO. How did you make the move from general council to CEO? And why did you make that step?
So, my predecessor was relocating to build the tech transfer office in the University of Sydney, Australia, and I said, I want his job. So, I ran to that position and I was thankful to become the CEO of Yeda. But at the time I was the youngest CEO of YEDA, the youngest person ever appointed to be the CEO of Yeda.
The funny thing is that they told me that they were appointing me to the CEO, it was 2006 at my birthday. So, fast forwarding time to 2016, when I was recruited to UCLA, I was doing my last round of interviews in UCLA at my birthday, it is April. So again, I received the job offer from UCLA in April 2016 and three months after that, I was already working on campus.
Wow. What prompted your move to UCLA? Was it just time for something else?
Yes, precisely. It was time to do something else. I had a great run at YEDA at the Weizmann Institute of Science, but then both myself and my wife, we were sick of our existing jobs and wanted to change and our kids were at an appropriate age to do something else. Then, I received this email from an international search firm and they told me, how about UCLA?
As soon as I looked at the data I said, that is a great opportunity. That is a big public school with a great research organization, the number one public school in the US, but really with a tech transfer organization that was left behind. The challenge of transforming that dormant organization into a leading organization just appealed to me. It was a very quick process as I said. I was coming to UCLA during my birthday in 2016, then I came one more time with my wife looking for apartments, and we made the move with my entire family. It has been a great ride ever since.
That would have been my next question. What was the past six years like?
It was great. As everything else, beginnings are tough and upscaling the things I knew how to do from YEDA to a huge organization like UCLA, that was not a simple process. But the atmosphere on campus, the atmosphere in Los Angeles, is so welcoming, so multicultural that it really made my life easy in moving my family here.
Then allowing me to focus on work and within I would say 18 months to two years to transform the organization to what we are seeing today. I hope people view us as a really cutting edge, state of the art, nimble organization, able to facilitate the transaction of technologies from the lab to the market, and also on the flip side, bring research dollars from industry back to the campus.
What is your view of the US ecosystem more broadly outside of UC, or even California in general?
It is really the best. It is a rare combination of ample resources from very sophisticated and supporting VCs to good incubators and accelerators to cutting edge science. When you put it all together and mix it up you get these amazing companies. So, for me, it has been truly a learning experience on how this very sophisticated ecosystem works together when all the right ingredients exist in the same place.
How does it compare to Israel? Is there anything that either country could learn from the other one?
Israel the entrepreneurial spirit is everywhere and it is the let us do it mentality, which is great for companies in their early stage. It is a very efficient ratio of investment to achievement of goals, but then sometimes Israeli companies lack the discipline of growth, especially in life science, when you need the experience and management, C-level management, to know how to bring a product to the market, how to develop a pharmaceutical.
You need the playbook. You need to know how to work with the FDA. You need to know what experiments to do and how to design them. That is something that the Israeli ecosystem is still somewhat lacking. We compensate for that in Israel with enthusiasm and being efficient, but in many cases unfortunately it does not get you all the way.
It gets you a lot of bank for high tech, but not so much in life science. I would say the one thing that Israel does very well is the governmental support program to tech transfer. So, the government in Israel has direct programs to support tech transfer where they reduce the risk for industry and investors to engage in this probably risky process of taking early-stage basic scientific work and investing private money into it with the hope that five to 10 years from now, it will become a program. The Israeli government has direct support programs that reduce that risk. I would like to see some of these programs in the US. We do not have those these days.
What is your vision for TDGs future?
We would like to continue and grow our ecosystem. I think we are just touching the tip of the iceberg right now and reach out to more and more faculty and partner with more and more community partners and build a vibrant ecosystem around our campus.
We are always planning and hoping to reach out to new audiences and new faculty members on campus, not just the traditional people from the schools of medicine and engineering, but also reach out to the humanities school of art and television and theatre, thinking about how to expand our reach to those areas as well.
We are looking how to expand our activities and serve more audiences on campus and make our tent bigger so more people can engage and come and be part of that I&E experience that we can offer.
Are there any innovations that have come out of media studies in LA that have been successes, whether they are licensing agreements or spinouts?
None that I know of. There is famous story on our campus that one of our faculty members brought the algorithm for the snowflakes in Frozen. The snowflakes are falling very realistically in Frozen, but he released that code in an open source.
So, Disney were able to just use it with the help of his students and not through a traditional way of technology transfer. Some people may call it a success. It is a tech transfer process, perhaps not the most economically efficient one, but that did happen. I cannot think of a true startup that came out through our office that serves that community.
By the way, one of the things that we are doing, we have an external board of directors. We are looking to recruit to that board of directors people coming from the media industry so we can be closer to that industry and understand how we can work with them because obviously we cannot speak about LA without media. So, we think about the different ways our office can expand and reach out and work more collaboratively with the film industry.
Other than the snowflakes which was not traditional tech transfer, are there any successes out of UCLA that you would like to highlight or that you are particularly proud of?
Sure. I can name a few. This is not to say they are the only ones or they are the important ones, because we have so many. One company is a company called Theseus AI is a company created by one of our surgeons. It is an AI platform that helps a surgeon determine if someone needs back surgery or not. The nice thing about this is that one of my staff members is also an attending doctor. He did his own tech transfer and moved from our office to be the first employee of that company. They just finished their fundraising and they are up and running. That is a nice, fun story.
Another company is called Nanotech Energy. They recently raised a lot of money and are building a manufacturing facility in Nevada. What they do is build and manufacture non-flammable batteries. So, we would not see these Teslas after accidents going into a ball of flames that is unextinguishable. I know the fire department is working for hours on those fires. So, with these new batteries, those fires will not happen again because they are non-flammable.
Then lastly, we were able to spin out two companies from a single lab. That is the lab of Prof Dennis Slamon. He is a guru of developing novel drugs to fight cancer, and we are able to spin out two companies from his lab. One is a joint project with Caltech where he is screening small chemical entities designed and developed at Caltech.
Another company is around novel antibodies that are again engineered at UCLA, in the Slamon lab, and then tested in his high throughput screening essay. Both of these companies are doing extremely well and already have several clinical trials ongoing based on these molecules and antibodies.
Amazing. Those are some very good choices, I think. Moving back to the question of finding staff. Is there anything that you would say to someone who is starting out in tech transfer today?
It is an amazing career. You never get bored. There is no downtime. There is not a dull moment. If people do not like to get bored like myself, it is an amazing career. What is nice about it is, we can wake up in the morning and speak about science with someone who is a Nobel Laureate or has won an incredible number of awards around their scientific work, then in the afternoon, negotiate a deal with a $1,500 partner in a big law firm around the license agreement.
The following day, you will be looking into a sub-license to a company that signed a startup company that grew and is now signing a deal with a tech giant or big pharma. That type of diversity within science, business and law, I think is so interesting that it is really hard to compete with it.
Is there anything that you would change about tech transfer either at UCLA or as a profession more broadly?
I think it is an underappreciated profession. So, as practitioners we should do a better job in explaining exactly what we do and the value we bring to our respective institutions. In UCLA, we are very lucky that our chancellor really understands what we are doing.
He is personally involved and personally helped and visioned the recreation of our organization five or six years ago. But that is not the case in other campuses. The explanation of the need and societal good that we bring to our ecosystem is very important. We need to work on that.
That almost brings us to the end. Is there anything else we have not talked about that you want people to know about UCLA?
Come to UCLA. Every time I speak with someone, they are sitting miserable somewhere with awful weather and we tell them, Hey, that is the view outside my office and it is sunny. It is sunny in January. It is sunny in February. It is sunny 360 days of the year, but it is not humid.
So, most people when they come, they have this image of foggy LA and that is not true anymore. It is a really, really wonderful place to live in. If you are considering pursuing an academic career, pursuing a career in tech transfer, or just building a new business, please consider LA County as your next house.
LA is probably one of the favourite places that I have ever been to. Sadly, it has been a few years because of covid since I have been there. It is definitely a really great place, other than the traffic. It is a beautiful place to be.
That is true, but it is getting better. Then there is actually ongoing construction. So, before the Olympics we will have a decent Metro and subway system, and that will improve things dramatically.
Amazing. Amir, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today. It has been a real pleasure.
Thank you for inviting me and it has been a pleasure as well. Thank you.