cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Fred Farina

Fred Farina is the chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where his duties also include overseeing the technology transfer out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He tells us what it was like to start his career in tech transfer by being hired by AUTM founder Larry Gilbert and what has kept him around Caltech for more than two decades.

Caltech came to technology transfer much later than its peers – in 1995 – and Farina reveals why that is and how it has caught up to its peers, how his office is treading carefully to provide additive services without shifting the culture away from foundational research and how Amazon Web Services came to be the first corporate to build its own building on campus.



Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Fred, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you. Happy to be here.

It is a great pleasure to have you. To start with, can you give me an overview of commercialisation at Caltech?

So, Caltech is a science and engineering-focused university on the west coast of the United States. We also manage the jet propulsion laboratory for NASA. We control IP that is generated at Caltech of course, on the campus, but also at the jet proportion laboratory. So, my office is in charge of commercialising intellectual property out of Caltech and JPL.

irst of all, we joined this field very late compared to other universities. 1995 is when Caltech started doing this, they established an office. To give you a reference, Stanford started in 1970, MIT in the 1940s. I think Wisconsin in the 20s or something, they were the first one to do this. So, we came late, I am not going to talk about the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, that generated the whole field basically.

Caltech started in 1995 with an interesting model that was somewhat traditional but focused on startups, but aggressive patenting and friendly licensing was the idea to get technologies out. We deal with very early-stage technologies, so, at the early stage, you really never know which one may have a place in the market or be successful. So, get them out, patent as much as possible, get them out and see what happens. Somewhat similar to others, MIT and Stanford, in that sense a little bit more passive, I would say, because that was the field, right, when it was established, universities can patent and own their inventions and their licenses, and we wait for companies to come.

We never did marketing, but others do marketing. We do not think that works really well for early-stage technologies. But over the years, we have really evolved, I would say, from a patent licensing model to a business creation model and that is happening in the last 10 years where we have now programmes.

Early-stage funding in the lab for potentially commercially viable projects or technologies, de-risking in the lab. Then we have an entrepreneur resident programme. It brings former entrepreneurs or in between people, in between startups, to the campus for a couple of years to help faculty to complement the expertise in the office tech transfer from an operational standpoint in the startup, fundraising, pitching to investors, et cetera.

Then we have, as of a year and a half ago, we created a seed fund to invest in startups. Then we just opened up an incubator now and looking at the life science building in the near future. So really an evolution from a little bit more passive, still startup focussed but driven by faculty and now much more supportive with other programs, whether money or expertise in starting companies or facilities.

You have managed to touch on quite a few things that I wanted to talk about there. So, we will get back to those at some point. How would you define Caltech compared to other institutes of technology? How do you compare to say MIT?

We are a lot smaller, about one fourth the size of MIT. We do not have a business school. We do not have a med school. We do not have a law school. MIT does have a business school. I think because of that, we have one contiguous campus. You can walk across, 10 minutes each way in the rectangle or square. And it is really sort of a big family. Everybody knows each other. You bump into people on the campus all the time at the faculty club, so you get to know people personally, I would say. So that distinguishes Caltech a little bit from a lot of other institutions.

It is also very flat in terms of management. The provost is my boss and the president, I have access easily if I want to. I know if I were at one of the big universities, it would take six to nine months to get a meeting with the president or the chancellor or whoever. So, things can move much more quickly. We are private, so we get a little bit freer of state regulations or requirements. And when we decide to do something, we can move really quickly, put things together. So, that is one of the differences. Some of the differences at the university level, if you look at the tech transfer, we had to become a lot more proactive in the commercialization efforts in the sense we are not situated in the ecosystem where it is full of VCs, full of entrepreneurs, full of companies, tech companies, biotech companies like around Kendall Square and Silicon Valley around Stanford.

So, we had to become much more proactive in building the ecosystem around and getting companies out and trying to keep them in the ecosystem and so because of that, our focus has been a little bit shifted toward that. I look at Palo Alto and all my faculty members, our friends with VCs, with former CEOs of companies and they are consulting for Google and this and that. So, they are very much connected into the ecosystem, which allows for freer flow of technologies from the university into the ecosystem and so we had to be much more proactive in that area.

The other thing that is unique here is that because there is no business school, because there is no law school or med school and because we are small, all the programmes related to tech transfer, IP, licensing, entrepreneurship, corporate partnerships can be done under one roof and very orchestrated, as I said, deliberately planned. At many universities, you have the engineering school and will be doing something in entrepreneurship.

The business school definitely have a programme there and they have an incubator over here and the tech transfer office, both Stanford and MIT are limited to patents and licensing. So, it is a little bit disconnected, and we can do something here that is much more coordinated because it is under one roof. All the aspects of dealing with industry, even corporate partnerships is under my office. So, we have the venture fund, we have corporate partnerships, we have the incubators, we have this internal fund that goes into the labs for de-risking, and obviously we have IP, patenting and licensing.

As you said, you also got JPL – NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. Does the tech transfer work the same for inventions coming out of JPL as it does at the rest of Caltech?

Yes and no. For the most part, yes, because a lot of the inventions we see at Caltech are federally funded, so there is a process of disclosing to the government, doing compliance under the law and so NASA has similar requirements. So, I would say it is similar in the sense that we get the IP to review here when there is an invention to have disclosure obligation. We select the ones we want to patent, we wave the ones we do not, then we take ownership and just like any other federal agencies, we have to disclose to the agency and then put the name of the agency on the patent as a funder and as an entity that gets a licence.

That makes sense. As you said, Caltech only launched a tech transfer office in 95. Why did you come to the game so late? As you said, Bayh-Dole in 1980, so that is 15 years after the act became law.

The culture, I think, is a big part of it that evolved over that time. We have very much been a fundamental science focused institution. For a long time, post World War II, because there was so much money coming from federal agencies to do fundamental research, Caltech really went big into that area. To this day, we are 90 plus percent federally funded in terms of grants. It is competitive grants, so we are really good at getting money from the federal agencies. Prior to World War II, we were much more industry friendly and because funding from industry was easier at the time and it made sense. That is how the aerospace industry was developed here in the wind tunnel here and the jet engine, all these things.

But again, post World War II, we went more fundamental and then in the nineties, people started looking at what was going on at other places, again, Stanford, MIT and other places, and a lot of commercialization, a lot of technologies coming out and the government started to be much more interested in the impact of research, not just in terms of research papers, but also in terms of technologies, economic development, things that help society in general, new products to market. So, the culture started shifting.

The students were definitely more interested in doing that and new faculty members also, and even old timer faculty members with Nobel prizes started doing it and were very interested in that. So, in the nineties, the culture really shifted. By the time they started the office, it started to be something that people wanted to do and something that the purist did not get in the way of. Our first director, Larry Gilbert, who came from Boston, MIT, and BU, had a model of, Okay, I am going to meet with every faculty member that does research in the areas of interest and I am going to tell them what we can do with it, and then created those relationships early on and people started disclosing. We went from 30 disclosures per year on the campus to 115 in a couple years, and patenting very aggressively. It turned out we had a pre-existing revenue from DNA sequencing. So we did not have an office of tech transfer, but general council was doing some deals here and there and that was coming in.

They wanted money to invest in tech transfer and started patenting a lot. To this day we have a very aggressive patenting strategy. Then things took off very quickly. It was during the dot com era, so there was a lot of investment that came, people raised money easily. So that kind of kickstarted the office and we have been really growing and adding more programs since then to shift from this patent licensing model to a business creation model. I would say one more thing that we started doing is because we patented aggressively and we had a lot of interesting technologies that were patented, obviously not everything gets licensed and we looked at enforcement of IP rights and we identified a few portfolios that were infringed.

So, we went to these companies and asked them to take a license and that was one of the successes in terms of financial success that brought significant revenues to Caltech, then obviously that goes back into research and education. So, that was another piece of the model that we added because at the end of the day we have a licensing practice and large companies sometimes do not pay much attention to university IP. So, occasionally I think it is part of good practice that occasionally on the right cases, the very good case, when you believe you have a very strong case, it makes sense to enforce.

It has to be occasional and not all the time, obviously. So, we had a whole portfolio in the CMOS image sensor area that came out of the space program with JPL, mission to Saturn, and they developed these chips that could do imaging on the chip, and that is what ended up in the cell phones to enable the technology to be on cell phones and low power, miniaturised. So, we had to enforce, but the companies took the licence very quickly and we settled all that very quickly. Currently we are in litigation with Apple and Qualcomm Wi-Fi technology. I cannot say much about this, but this is part of the whole programme.

Do you do anything to actively promote entrepreneurship on campus?

We are starting to. At the end of the day, we believe that it has to come from within the researchers to want to do this. It is hard. It takes a long time, a lot of failures, a lot of new things, additional things to learn from being a scientist and all that. So, it is not like we so much promote it, but we try to enable the people who demonstrate that desire to go out and start companies based on that research.

Those support programmes, whether it is funding in the lab or investment in the company, seed, pre-seed investment, put them in their next facilities and providing that hands on first CEO type advice, mentorship before they find the businesspeople to go along with them. That is part of what we have been doing actively. So that is our way of supporting entrepreneurship. When people want to come to Caltech, the first thing in mind is not becoming entrepreneur. Of course, a lot of them do take that path, but it is not like Stanford where, as an undergrad, it is on your list because you want to start a company at some point and so this is the environment to do it. This is not really the type of people we generally attract.

 They are people who are very dedicated to science and technology, whether the undergrads or of course the grad students, and most of the companies we see at Caltech are from the researchers. So, the grad students, professors, postdocs, not so much from the undergrads, and they are very much deep tech based. So, someone who has been doing research in one area for the last seven years, 10 years, and now there seems to be a market out there, it is mature, it is de-risked.

Then they are ready to go out and sell the company. It is not the undergrad who is, let’s do social networking kind of software where people can connect and let us call it Facebook, not those kinds of things that we see most of the time. Yes, it happens occasionally, but we are already focused on the research based, deep tech-based technology transfer.

That makes sense. I guess if you do not have a business call that already cuts out an entire cohort of people that would found those companies that then do not come to Caltech in the first place as well.

Yes. The other thing is we do not want to change the fabric of Caltech. Caltech is a place of research and engineering, fundamental science. We have a lot of now translational programs on the research level. But that culture is the main culture. What we do here is additive to it for the 10, 15, 20%, growing number of people who want to then take that technology to market because they want to see greater impact. Then we are here to support that without changing the core values of Caltech. We are very careful about that.

Do you run any specific programmes to encourage women and underrepresented minorities to be more entrepreneurial?

We work with our diversity office somewhat. We are a little bit small to have that, and it depends on the whole Caltech, the changes in terms of diversity and inclusion. But it turns out that we have had in the last two years, two women EIRs. Entrepreneurs-in-residence, and then we have made a conscious effort to really help the women founders.

So, we have several startups that we invested in are women and minority founders. But we also have to balance that against, is it a good investment? Does it make sense for us to put money into this? But Caltech is I think becoming more and more diverse, so we see a lot of great projects from women, from underrepresented minorities as well. As the student population and the faculty population changes that creates more of that diversity in the startup area.

Yes, of course. You have mentioned investment funding a few times. We got the Rothenberg Innovation Initiative, you have the Gates Grubstake Fund, you have the Caltech Seed Fund, you have the Wilson Hill fund. Can you tell me a little bit more about how these fit together?

So yeah, it is a little bit complicated. So there are two groups, the Rothenberg Initiative and the Grubstake are in the same group. The main one really is the Rothberg Initiative that is worth talking about more because it is bigger and it is similar to the Grubstake. So, the money goes into the lab. It is 250,000 a year for two years, and there are a couple of proposals every year and it is for de-risking technologies. It really goes into the lab and we get proposals from faculty.

They explain what they want to do, what kind of experiments they want to run, a prototype they want to build and what commercial potential, and then we assess that and we fund eight to 10 proposals a year for that. The Grubstake is an ongoing program where people can apply, again similar idea, we have this idea and we want to do work for a year on this and we need $70,000, $80,000 to do this. So, that generates a lot of ideas for startups later on.

Then you have the Caltech Seed Fund and the Wilson Hill Fund that are investments in startups. So, I think you can think of those as one, because we co-invest, we have an agreement to co-invest in startups and so they match, at least match our investment. They were created to work directly with us, with the Caltech Seed Fund and that is an investment in the company and that could be $500,000, $1m, maybe $1.5m to pre-seed or seed the company. Again, differences, the first one, the Rothenberg goes into the lab. It is a grant, there are really no strings attached other than our ability to recoup some of the funding if the company is formed.

 So, there is some language like that in the agreement when you give the funding. Then the other ones, the Seed Fund and the Wilson Hill are an investment in the company.

Is it generally easy to find money for your startups, or easier now?

I would say yes, generally the money has not been the main problem. But there are two categories of technologies and that is what our Seed Fund that is now a year and a half old is trying to address. You have these technologies that either are from labs, are well known, that have done startups before, VCs know them and they are just waiting for the next thing. Or technologies that are hot at the moment. Quantum technologies, AI and all that stuff. So those tend to raise larger rounds right off the bat. It could be $15m, $20m, $50m in the case of a pharma company. So, those go off on their own, and we do not need to help. We just do a little licence and we provide whatever help, and they are experienced entrepreneurs typically on the faculty.

They go along with the postdoc and postgrad students. So, that is one category and the other category are either they are not trendy in the moment, newer younger faculty members who have not done it before. They have no track record of starting companies, but they are very interesting and they could have great potential, but they need a little bit of work, studying in the lab for the Rothberg and de-risking, and then help from the EIRs to think about how we start a company, who do we hire, what milestones do we need to reach to raise money.  Then we have this seed funding to help them with the first $500,000, $2m, $1.5m, put their team together, and they are really pitched together, their story together for a series A or a larger seed.

The Seed Fund and Wilson Hill were created to help these technologies that have great potential, but do not fall under the category and fundable at this moment. So, we have to do a lot more work and that is where we go back to the business creation model, where we really try to create business from the technology and then to position those companies for funding via a VC.

You have mentioned EIRs as well. How do you generally find management for your startups? Are they easy to come by?

That is always the hardest thing, finding the right people. Especially we are in an ecosystem that is not as dense. I would say it is rich, but not dense, like Silicon Valley for example. So, LA is a big area and there are a lot of great people in the entire ecosystem, but it is fast and so that is always an issue. So, the EIRs are former entrepreneurs that come in for two or three years into Caltech to my office full time, and they focus on whatever startup at the moment is growing and they are very well connected into the ecosystem.

So, they are the ones that typically help find the first CEO, the first management team to team up with the scientific founders, and themselves, they often act as interim CEO of the company even before it is formed, pulling the pieces together and mentoring the scientific founders. But that is always the hardest thing, I think anybody will tell you that. Even in Boston and San Francisco and Palo Alto, they will tell you that finding the right businesspeople to team up with the scientist is the hardest thing.

Yes, it is definitely a story I have heard a few times. Do your companies generally stay in LA once they are formed, or do they go up to the Bay Area or to Boston even?

I think about over 50% stay, and we want that number to go up and that is what we are working on and creating the ecosystem and building it. For example, if it is a pharma company, they need wet labs and there are not a lot of possibilities in the area, in Pasadena, in terms of life science equipped facilities, then they tend to go to San Diego or the Bay Area, sometimes Boston. So, that is why we are working on building facilities in the area so that they can stay here.

At least, if you keep them in the area for the first two or three years, then roots are established and it is harder to move and so we are focusing on those two or three years. But depending on where the management is and where the CEO is, the company will go there. I know our faculty members like to keep them close for the first few years because they want to be able to, the first few years of company formation, there is a lot of transfer of technology, non IP-type brain dumps of what they know from the lab, what works, what does not work.

Once that transfers, up to two or three years, then they are more focused on the engineering, sales, marketing, carrying products, and then it is not as important. That is why we want to keep them nearby early on.

What is working well in the Caltech ecosystem then? Or what are the opportunities?

I think what is working well at the moment is that I think we turned the corner in terms of being more reactive and a lot more proactive, and not only helping our scientists and researchers start a company and partner with industry, but also build an ecosystem around the campus, and that is new. It is booming, I think.

People are very enthusiastic about doing that and helping transform the area into a tech hub where Caltech is at the centre of it and there are a lot of organisations that are moving to Pasadena as well, scientific organizations, Carney Institute for Science is moving here. And we have one of the, now public, companies that came out of Caltech 20 years ago and moved back to Pasadena, Doheny Eye Institute. We have a Kaiser medical school. Things are coming together, and there is a lot of enthusiasm about this whole thing.

Startups that we are launching are a lot more polished and mature than I think they were in the past and the support to the entrepreneurs is higher quality and targeted and more available to the ones who want that support. The other piece that we have turned a big corner is in corporate partnerships where we have a very comprehensive relationship with AWS, Amazon Web Services, at the moment, and we have them on campus. So, they have their own lab doing machine vision, AI, machine learning. They are on the second floor of a building and the first floor is the incubator, so the dry incubator, as we are building a life science one.

Then we invited them to our campus to build their own building to do quantum computing. They have a big research group here doing quantum computing. Of course, we are collaborating with them, but it is their own group and they are developing quantum computers there, again, on the campus. It is first time, as far as I know, in the history that we let a company build their own building on the campus.

So, we are going in areas where it makes sense, where we are like-minded with these companies in terms of they want to do something far reaching, that needs a lot of fundamental research to get to actually be able to develop these quantum computers. It seems like a perfect match where we do the final work that needs to be done, you need to do the engineering part, and hopefully that will result in quantum computers faster than whatever timeline we envision.

Is that generally the type of corporate partners that Caltech attracts then, companies who are interested in computing, or is it much more diverse?

It is more diverse. This one is the newest one, a pre-covid type era that we started, and they all initiated with faculty members who have connections and they say, oh, this is something we can do together, and then we build something around it. The other ones are we have a long-standing relationship with Amgen. We have also a big one with Dow Chemical. We have Boeing, Northrop Grumman. It is pretty diverse.

I guess that makes sense. JPL, yeah. How easy or not is it for Caltech at the moment to find tech transfer practitioners? Are you fully staffed or are you struggling like so many of your peers?

We are fully staffed. We have been very stable, a very low turnover. So, I have been fortunate. The way we work here, we try to make the work flexible and interesting. We always do new things beyond the traditional tech transfer practice. It keeps people longer interested in the jobs I think, because they get to do patents and licensing and also with startups and then the venture fund and the incubator, all these things, everybody can get involved in that. So, they keep growing as professionals in the whole spectrum of commercialization, as opposed to most tech transfer offices. All they do is patents, licensing, and the fund is done by another group.

So, I think that helps retain people. The campus is beautiful, it is small, and we have access to the faculty club and it is a very pleasant experience. So, when people are being poached by other universities, they think twice because it is a pretty good situation here. We do not have any horror stories about working at that university or that university. So, very stable. Knock on wood. The area where it is harder lately post-covid is administrative support.

We struggle hiring people. We are fully staffed now, but in the last couple of years getting resumes has been challenging from qualified people. Where in the past we would get 300 resumes the next day we put an ad. Now it is like 15 resumes in three weeks. That is general I think.

That always surprises me because I always think a university is quite a nice place to work for. They tend to be really good employers. There tend to be good benefits and there tends to be a nice working environment. So, I am always surprised when they struggle as well. Where do the people go? They have to go somewhere.

I know, where do they go? They are also more demanding in terms of, is it fully flexible? Is it working from home? Is it all that stuff?

You are originally from Corsica. You spent some time in France before you came to the US. You did your MSc at Caltech. You worked at JPL on GPS. You then moved to Miami. You came back to California, you worked at a law firm. Apparently at some point you contemplated a career at SETI, which I find amazing. But now you have been at Caltech obviously for more than two decades. Why did you choose a career in tech transfer and why Caltech specifically?

I had no idea tech transfer existed until I met people at Caltech. I knew that I did not want to continue purely in technology in the engineering area and research that I was doing before. It was very interesting. I had an amazing job really where I was running GPS experiments in the Caribbean and so that means that you have to take all kinds of GPS receivers and antennas to the field around fault lines and volcanoes and things like that, and set them up and then get signal for two weeks or a week at a time, and then take the data back to the lab, analyse and then go back and remeasure and see how things move using high precision GPS. Our area of study was the Caribbean and Mexico, so every two months you go in the field, Jeeps, offroading.

I was in my twenties, it was adventure. And when you set up the receivers, you just, you wait. So, you can enjoy the local beaches, culture. At some point after six, seven years of doing that, I was like, that is great, I am enjoying this very much, but I want to do something in business and maybe law, things were blooming on the west coast, technology. And so, I decided to go into patent law. At the time, as an engineer it was pretty easy to get a job in a law firm doing patent work.  They could not find people.

And so I went into that for a couple years and I enjoyed that very much and I learned a lot, but it was a little too narrow for me. It was just, you do the patent work and then someone else takes it. Who knows what happens with it, if it goes anywhere. Then a former classmate of mine told me, oh, they have a job at Caltech for someone with an EE background and some patent experience. They had someone ironically named Fred who worked at JPL and had a master’s from Caltech, who just turned it down. So why do you not come and talk to them? And I am like, what is tech transfer? Never heard of it. I came and I talked to them and Larry Gilbert, our founding father I would say, whose DNA is in the back there on a baseball, Red Sox fan, talked to me for an hour about tech transfer, did not ask any questions. I am like, this is the easiest interview I had.

But it was so interesting because it was basically everything that I wanted to do, which is I wanted something that is connected to technology, on the business side with IP, and it is like, I am going to learn a lot to come here and learn about licensing, I know something about patents, I know something about technology.

Then I am here 21 years later, and I have enjoyed very much the, first of all, in the early years, after about five, six years, then there were retirements and the person who was supposed to take over jumped to the investment field and I very quickly was promoted and then became the director only five, six years after I even started in the field.

Then I was able to really push projects that I thought were important with the support and given a lot of freedom. The enforcement project with the JPL technologies that are in our cell phones to early-stage funding, EIRs, the venture fund, the incubators. When I try to look back and say, how come I have been in one place for 21 years? It is like it has evolved so many times and I do not feel I am doing the same job I was doing when I first started that is for sure. So, a lot of exciting things have happened every couple of years, and really I have been able to shape the direction and build the things that I have thought were important to build around.

Are there any interesting, wider changes in tech transfer that you have seen over these past couple of decades?

Everybody has become a lot more sophisticated about it, universities and companies. I think it is probably harder now to get a deal on a royalty deal that is going to bring lots of money like in the past. Whether it is the types that you could do a deal and company were okay with, Here is the three or four or 5% royalty.

In startups, the equity now there is a market that is been kind of fixed for this is how much equity a university should get from a deal, even though maybe it is not that fair because initially the technology is, the value is entirely coming from university and now we get 5%, but that is established, and it does not look like it is going to be moving that much. This idea again, I mentioned, more reactive patenting and licensing to whoever comes and asks for it and all these new programs that industries are doing to put in place to promote tech transfer, to enable the translational technology and whether it is funding or facilities, all that.

That is where it is going I think. I think we are generally going toward a business creation model rather than just patent licensing. There is a lot more scrutiny on conflict of interests and things like that. So that is a little bit I would say paralyzing for some because in the past people did not pay that much attention to it, for better or for worse, but the agencies were not as demanding on conflict disclosures and things like that. So, the bureaucracy has gone up, that is the downside, vital to regulations, imposed more things.

The compliance of the government is a bit too diverse in the sense that every agency does their own thing, and it is not really one process for everyone, and so that creates issues. But generally, the field has grown a lot. There are a lot more people in universities who are doing more and are certainly a lot more sophisticated about it. So, I think it is in a good place and going in a good direction.

Is there anything that you would change about it, how it is done today?

The changes that I would make have to do with removing the bureaucratic obstacles to getting technologies out. So, this whole compliance with government is very complicated. Universities have entire staff to do just that. I think that could be rethought and streamlined in a way that does not require all that extra work really, and it is pretty complicated work, provisional versus non provisional and the date when you disclose when you elect rights.

Could it be just that you put stuff on the patent and then it is done. When you file it, no, there is all kinds of things going on.  That piece I think could be re-engineered to make it more streamlined so we can focus on the funding that we use for all these things and the government, because they have their accountable parts on the other side of people who do all that stuff, could use that money to help the companies at the early stage to do de-risking of technologies, to do all that stuff. It is a much, much better use of the money. Maybe it is too idealistic to think that way, but I think there is progress to be made in that area.

I have a feeling a lot of your peers would probably share that view as well. Is there any advice you would give to someone starting out in this career today?

I think it has become a tough field to get into because there are not that many jobs and people come from all walks of life, from technology, from law, from business. So, I would always advise people to, if they really want to get into it, to do their rotations, meaning you typically require a technical background, whatever area, then do something in the patent area, because that is a core thing for tech transfer, then licensing, then startups, venture capital.

You have to learn a little bit about everything. However, you can do that interning. If you are a new graduate and you want to get in tech transfer on the internship, so the best way to learn about it, to make sure it is something for you and also to get to know people in the field. Once you know people, it is very easy for us to look at resumes and not pay attention if we do not see that perfect profile we are looking for.

When we know the person and they ask and we like them, then we have to make an effort to see if we can do something for them and with them. So, internships are the best way probably to get into this field. But I feel it is really much more difficult than it used to be because there are more people interested in it and not as many jobs.

Can you give me some examples of some Caltech spinouts? For whatever reason you want to highlight them. Whether they have made a lot of money, whether you think the technology is interesting or they are recent and they are up and coming. We have talked a lot about business creation and not actually named any businesses yet.

I am going by prolific inventors like Bob Grubbs, who has a Chemistry Nobel prize, started a few companies. One that got bought recently by Exxon called Materia based on his Nobel prize winning technology. He also started a company in the ophthalmology area for lenses that are for cataracts. You replace your lens and you can adjust it after the fact to get perfect vision. Currently the technology, when post-surgery when everything settles, people still need to wear glasses after surgery that would allow to… and it is actually FDA-approved and they are a public company at the moment.

Frances Arnold, another chemistry laureate started several companies, including one in Santa Monica called Provivi in the ag bio area, pheromones and agriculture and things like that.

Mory Gharib, another very prolific inventor had another ophthalmology company in the glaucoma area that went public called Glaukos. He also had a dental imaging, 3D-imaging company to get the scans of the mouth. You see that in dentists’ offices now, that was purchased by a German company called Sirona. He now has a drone company, a heavy lift drone company for package delivery and other goods, search and rescue, all that stuff. Then he has a heart valve company as well, polymer heart valve, that is undergoing FDA approvals at the moment.

Those are very different. That is amazing. 

I know. It is something to realise people know is, it is not the entire faculty that is interested in this. It is a percentage of them. I think a growing percentage, but 15%, 20% of the ones that are repeat offenders I would say.

Another one is called Capsida, Viviana Gradinaru. It is a gene delivery company for central nervous system disorders. We are invested now more early stage. The fund has invested in a quantum company, and a stroke detection company, in a battery company, in a cancer drug company, and high throughput diagnostic company. So really all over the map. 

Amazing. We are very nearly out of time. Is there anything else we have not covered that you want to share?

It is just that I think LA is rising as a major tech hub in the world and certainly we are playing our part here. But I think in 10 years, LA and Pasadena will be recognised as one of the most active in life sciences, but also other areas, whether it is quantum or AI.

We hope to create a quantum momentum here in the area as well, so it will be nice to see that in a few years. We will see how the predictions turn out.

Amazing. Well, LA has got a lot going for it besides the universities as well, so it is a great city, full of great people. Fred, thank you so much for taking your time to talk to me today. It has been a great pleasure.

You are welcome. Anytime.

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).