For the 50th episode of Talking Tech Transfer, we are excited to bring you a discussion between Ian McClure, the associate vice-president for research, innovation and economic impact at University of Kentucky, the executive director of its commercialisation office UK Innovate and the incoming chairman of AUTM, and Orin Herskowitz, senior vice-president of intellectual property and tech transfer for Columbia University.
Among the topics covered are attending intellectual property conferences and understanding the asset from a different perspective, the importance of fidelity to communication protocols and balancing several jobs with their private lives.
McClure also reveals how he has used public grants to build a regional ecosystem and what motivated him to establish a social innovation programme to attract humanities and social sciences faculty.
You can find our original interview with Herskowitz here.
Please note: the intro and outro have been omitted.
Orin Herskowitz: Ian, thank you for joining the discussion today. I am really looking forward to this. You and I have known each other now for 10, 15 years, in so many different contexts. I think many people who are listening to this will already know who you are, but please introduce yourself and the office you manage and your role there. Just tell us a little about what you do and I can do the same and then we can take it from there.
Ian McClure: I am the associate vice president for research, innovation and economic impact, a mouthful, at the University of Kentucky. Newer title, newer role. I took over this title and role in April of this year. Before that I was the executive director of our office of technology commercialization, our tech transfer office. I still oversee that office, but I have been tasked with building some other things that I think we will talk about, industry partnering, social innovation, some really neat things like that, innovation, economic development, which we will get into. My career in tech transfer is about five years long formally. Although I have been touching pieces of tech transfer for many years, and that is how you and I know each other of course. I started my career in corporate M&A as a lawyer.
So, a legal background, then I was an entrepreneur. So, I stepped out of a partner track position at a law firm. My wife really loved that idea at the time because I was making no money. Then I went and raised money and ran a company called IPXI, which was still intellectual property licensing based, did some really neat stuff with that.
We can get into some of that. Then went from there to a boutique investment bank, doing what we called IP rich M&A, but it was sort of IP and technology transactions for large tech companies, sourcing acquisitions of IP portfolios, technology assets, even teams at times, and companies. Then I got plucked from there to come to UK, which is where I am from, I am from the state of Kentucky. So, I came back from Chicago to do that here. How about you?
Orin Herskowitz: I have actually I think had a less interesting career arc in a sense. I was an English major. I had been an MBA, I had done some small-scale entrepreneurship stuff. Technically I was an entrepreneur, but it really was not much of an entrepreneur and not the way we describe it, the way people we deal with now are.
So, after college where I was an English major, I essentially followed my girlfriend out to the west coast. That part worked out quite well because we have been married now essentially ever since so that was a good decision. But when I followed her out to the west coast, I took a job at a radio station. KGO-AM radio out on the west coast. I was super excited to have the job and I loved the people there, but it was pretty brutal.
It was essentially just straight up radio ad sales. It is interesting because I think a lot of those lessons learned of trying to market and sell something that is non-tangible, essentially that does not exist in any physical form, but that does have some inherent value, and all the hardship associated with trying to find the right home for those assets came in really handy. But at the time it was humbling and horrific.
I went back for my MBA, then ended up going to the Boston Consulting Group for seven fantastic years as a strategy consultant, but knew I did not want to stay. I knew that the life of a consultant was not for me. I wanted to get involved in something on a more sustained basis. I did a project for the Bloomberg administration when Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of New York, about the future of New York City as a bioscience capital.
That was a fascinating project because New York has obviously always been the home of finance and insurance and media. But as a new Yorker, I was a lifelong new Yorker, I really did not have an appreciation for all the intellectual assets coming out of the research institutions. So had no real connection to this incredibly rich resource that was already in the city nor to the potential for what that could become.
The question that was framed was, what would you have to believe to believe that New York could someday rival Boston or rival San Francisco as a bioscience capital? They turned me loose on that case and as part of it, I was asked to interview the people who helped drive the local science-based startup economy.
So many of those names will be familiar to people who are listening, but Kathleen Denis who ran Rockefeller forever was one of my first interviews, Pat McGrath who was at Sinai, and Maria Gotsch who has been a huge friend of our ecosystem here in New York, runs Partnership Fund for New York City. I knew nothing about anything. I knew nothing about patents. I knew nothing about science. I knew nothing about startups.
I knew nothing about university tech transfer. I walked into my first interview with Kathleen Denis at Rockefeller. I am so grateful that she did not completely hand my ass back to me because I had been told from the beginning, the problem with New York is that the universities do not want to create startups.
All you need to do is look at it and say, Well, they get X hundred inventions and yet they only do X startups a year. So clearly they are only doing 1% of their inventions turning to startups. They must not like startups very much. You can imagine how well that conversation went over when I bounced that back to the interview subjects, but, when they did not kill me on the spot, it just sounded like what they did was fascinating and seemed like so much fun.
So, the version of this that you would give at college graduation would be that I then actively pursued this career, but in fact, actually what happened was the executive recruiters at Spencer Stuart called my office mate at BCG to try and recruit him for the job at Columbia. He was not interested but handed the phone to me, and I could not believe my luck. I came to Columbia for what was going to be a one or two year gig working on a lot of ops-related stuff.
Ian McClure: Now you are a lifer.
Orin Herskowitz: And here it has been 15 years. I do not know about you, I am so interested in your experience in this, but for me, I have found this to be so rewarding and so fun and such a broad scope that I really cannot imagine what else I might do. But you have had actually far more jobs than I have had, and also are newer to tech transfer. Is life in university technology commercialization what you thought it was going to be? How does this fit against your expectations?
Ian McClure: I love your story to be honest. I think both of us just admittedly have what you might consider non-traditional routes to get here yet we were doing things that still touch very important aspects of tech transfer. It is a very, very interdisciplinary field. I will say in short order that I love it. I really, really love the field.
I think I have heard you say once before, it is the best job in the world, and I would not disagree with that. I would absolutely agree with that. It has its own challenges that are very, very different from the private sector. I have been meaning to ask you about your experience at BCG. Because when I think sometimes about what are the most important things I learned along the way in some of the various very different career stops that I had from a law firm, private practice, as an entrepreneur, raising money, the pressures of keeping a team alive and then going to this investment bank, it was hustle and travel all around the world to try to get deals done and sit in board rooms, put pitch presentations together, valuation models, and then coming to tech transfer. It is the most satisfying of any of the positions that I have had.
I think that is because of two things. One, the people that I get to interact with are some of the brightest in their field, but also maybe the most passionate about what they do, and passionate for the reasons that I like because they are, trying to make impact with their research and their lifelong, totally invested mindset in a certain field and discipline. Those are our internal clients. Then we have got people like you, who to me is a peer that is very helpful and willing to benchmark and talk about ideas. You do not find that in the other fields that I have been in.
In fact, I just got back from a conference out in Seattle, which is a different part of the intellectual property field. It is called IPBC Global. It is corporate IP strategists, investors, intellectual property deal makers, mostly in the corporate IP space. Their conversations are very competitive, very deal-oriented. They are about value and monetization extraction. So those conversations are the type of conversations that I used to have, which are fascinating. The people are incredibly sophisticated. Some of the smartest people, honestly, I have ever worked with, but the conversations are not as satisfying or fulfilling because the passions are just oriented around some different things and it is not impact the world, save and improve lives, make technology, work, those kind of things. It is get the deal done and let’s get that bonus.
Orin Herskowitz: I have been to IPBC, I did not go this year. It is a fabulous conference. Similarly, there is a conference called the IP Dealmakers conference that Wendy puts on here in New York City that I know you and I both have gone to over the years. I remember, I think I had been doing this job for seven or eight years before I went to my first one of either of those.
I am guessing that many of our peers in the tech transfer world have never been to any of these IP conferences. Even though so much of what we do day to day has to do with intellectual property and patents and protecting those assets and creating an asset that can be used to go raise funding, but it was so fascinating for me to go to one of those conferences.
I agree, they are incredibly smart people, but the analogy I used at the time was, I came back from my first IP Dealmakers conference, and I came back to my office and someone asked how it was and I said, I feel like I was at someone’s wedding, and I just realized that I had been at the kitty table and I went to another table and I was like, Oh my God, there is a whole different parallel conversation going on that I was not at all part of. When we talk about what we do for a living in university tech transfer and innovation and ecosystems, it is about saving the world.
It is about bringing, not our ideas, but the ideas coming out of our brilliant faculty and graduate students at all these institutions, in cancer and imaging and metabolic disease and medical devices and blood pressure monitoring and clean energy and cybersecurity and all stuff, and bringing those to market, to save and improve lives and to create entrepreneurs along the way, and to create companies and create jobs and help our local ecosystems and help the national economy and all these great things. But the thing that is the root of all that is our intellectual property.
It is patents, and most of the time, not every time, but most of the time, it is these intellectual assets. Yet, as a measure of what percent of our days we spend talking about it, it is probably 2% to 5%. But you go to one of these conferences and that is all that is being talked about. All the rest of the stuff floats away, and it is about the asset and the strength of the asset and not measured in terms of some sort of philosophical value of strength or intellectual strength, but how much money is that patent worth. That depends on so many other factors, like the IP regime in the US, the US PTOs decisions, of what the Supreme court decides, and it floats up and down and changes over time. It was just so eye-opening to realize that we were having two entirely separate conversations about fundamentally the same thing.
Ian McClure: At IPBC, I found myself having this conversation at least five times when I was out there. Truly they talk about IP as an asset class. They talk about IP as an asset, that is a tradeable asset. When they put a value on something it is truly on the asset itself as a standalone item of barter or trade.
The way I described it to many people in that conference is we do technology deals. Intellectual property is a part of that transaction. We are licensing the intellectual property. What we are really doing is transferring the technologies into someone’s hands that can put it to best use. A very different conversation piece. You will find in our conversations, we talk about patent and IP, but it is not the focal point of what we are doing. The most important thing we talk about is how the technology is going to be commercialized.
We have a provision that you never see in any of those intellectual property monetization contracts, which is commercially reasonable efforts to advance the technology. You will never find that in some of this other transaction language because it is just a different centrepiece around the conversation.
Orin Herskowitz: Other clauses that are in our agreements, that would make no sense in those. It is funny seeing the same deal from multiple angles, like technical information and knowhow. But that isnot relevant for a patent sale. The original inventor is so divorced at that point, from the time that the patent is being traded.
That does not mean it is not important. It does not mean the patent does not have value, but what is happening in that transaction is so different. It seems to me the patent at that point is being traded as a way of gaining competitive advantage by excluding your competitor from your marketplace. There is something fundamentally exclusionary and adversarial about that transaction.
Ian McClure: There is. But you know what? I explain this often to my own team and to other people who question why I would go to that conference. Or why I would engage myself in conversations with that part of the IP field. Here is how I explain it.
This is interesting because when I encourage people on my own team and in the tech transfer space to just do some of this outside the box investigating into other parts of this IP space, to get a rounded perspective, the reason why it is so important is because as I like to say, the value of intellectual property is if and to the extent it is enforceable and enforceability has to do with a lot of different factors. One of the things that is so important about that other side of the IP market is they often talk about enforcement and enforceability way more than we do, but if they cannot create enforceability through mechanisms, products, tools, approaches of intellectual property, then the value of the intellectual property as the underlying fundamental assets of our deals goes down because it is not respected. It is interesting.
It was characterised to me once early on in my career that the value of IP has to do with how scary it is. Again, it is enforceability of IP and really what we are talking about is, Is it respected by the market? In our case, it is not that we are having conversations about how scary my IP is, but investors will not invest in our startups whose only assets are intellectual property if that intellectual property is not going to be respected by the rest of the market, including big companies or other acquirers of the company downstream in an exit event.
So, it all matters. It does all tie together, and that is why I love to learn as much as I can about the other side of the market, because it does tie into the value of the assets that we trade.
Orin Herskowitz: It is completely true. The analogy I often use to try and explain that is, I teach a class called intellectual property for entrepreneurs. I know you teach IP classes as well. One of the ways we describe it is that in some ways the patent, there are lots of things that happen in a startup. I want to come back to something you said a minute ago about startups, all they have as the IP.
I think people listening to this might think That is not true for every startup. There are lots of startups. You could have a startup that is a barber shop. You could have a startup that is a food truck. You could have a startup that is a delivery app for getting groceries to your door.
There are tons of startups that actually are not fundamentally IP-based, that are about speed to market, that are about hiring the right team, that are about execution. In our world, the so-called deep tech or tough tech, the zero to one type startups, there are all sorts of ways you can fail, but there are very few ways you can succeed if you do not have strong intellectual property at the start and do not continue to build it over time.
What is interesting is the students in the class will often think, How much does the patent really matter? Why is intellectual property so important? We often bring this back to real estate. When you buy a house, it comes on a piece of land and you get title to that land. In some ways that titled land, most of us never think about that again, because it is just so assumed that you have bought the house and you close the mortgage and you sign all the documents and you get title the land and you know exactly what it is you bought.
If I bought a house and a piece of land, nobody is going to come along and build a house that is on my property, it just would not happen. Nobody is going to build their house next to my house and put half their house on my property and intrude on that because property rights around real estate are so well understood and so well-known and so well respected. Imagine a developer was going to put up a skyscraper in a city and bought a piece of land for $10m and then was going to spend $200m putting up a skyscraper on top of it. They can do that.
The cost of building the skyscraper is 20 times the cost of the land. In the same way that the cost of building a startup, you are going to spend far more on your human assets and going through clinical trials and everything else than you are on your patents. But that works in real estate because that developer knows they can invest their $200m, knowing that their title to the land underneath it is safe, and it is clear and is understood by everybody.
No one is going to put a skyscraper half on your land. The problem is when IP gets wonky, when people are not really sure if something is patentable and when people are not really sure if the patent they got is actually going to survive, or if you could use the patent to stop someone from getting onto your land. I would not buy a house if that were true, let alone put up a $200 million skyscraper.
People talk about the IPRs, the inter parties review, that process. People might say it is only less than X percent of the patents get invalidated in these post grant reviews. But if you extend that out to the commercial real estate market, if you said only 10% of the time does the land underneath the skyscraper get taken away from the person who built the skyscraper after the fact, what would happen to the commercial real estate market?
Literally no one would ever build a skyscraper again, it would be dead. Yet we are in this world where there really are, and that is why I think going to these conferences is so interesting, you see people who are looking at how secure the land is and how much the land is worth. That is why real estate prices rise and fall. Your home is worth more, not because your home has necessarily gotten better, but because the rights to the land and the rights to live in that house have become more valuable.
If we lived in a world where, as the value of your house went up, the odds went up that somebody was going to come along and take your house from you. That is crazy. It is impossible to imagine, yet that is kind of the world we are living in in the entrepreneurship community these days.
Ian McClure: There are different barriers to entry, and what we are talking about is just competition. We spin out a lot of startups. The university world I think spun out 1,200 startups last year, at least universities that report to AUTM via the data that AUTM collects. That is a lot of startup incubation.
The large majority of those start with an IP asset as their underlying asset to form the company around. So, at first, their only real barrier of entry that they can set up is through the intellectual property and that is what garners the investment.
There is an MIT study which shows if you have a patent, you are 4,000 times more likely to raise venture capital. But then as the company grows, other barriers of entry are created: first in time, lead time and advantage to market, forming supply chain relationships and partnerships that are exclusive, and then brand and reputation and things like that.
But it is interesting when you talk to people, especially investors who know that they are 4,000 times more likely to raise venture capital. You know that the investment market realizes this, but there is only one of those barriers of entry, except for maybe antitrust, that is protected by federal law. Unfortunately, the only way to enforce something against federal law is to enforce it in a court, but it is still a very strong protection that creates competitive advantage.
That is why intellectual property is so important to the innovation process, because it is all about incentives. Now we are getting deep into IP policy, but the incentives around the innovation process have to be created. It cannot just be about dissemination and transparency, it has to also be about incentivizing the necessary parties along the way to get that technology to market, the investors in particular, to participate via that barrier of entry that is protectable.
Orin Herskowitz: One of the things I always found so impressive about you is, I mean aside from the fact that you obviously do not sleep and you speak three times faster than the average human, you can just get more done in a 24 hour period than most people can. It is an unfair, competitive advantage of your own.
Ian McClure: I think we should put up a poll after this just to see who they think talks faster, you or me.
Orin Herskowitz: I think that is a race to the bottom, but okay, fair enough. I know you spend, in addition to your day job number one, you run the tech transfer office at the University of Kentucky, now you have a bigger day job of that and other stuff. Actually, maybe before we go there, what is the other stuff? So, you used to do just the tech transfer office. What got tacked on when you got the new job?
Ian McClure: The actual things that have been tacked on that I am building now are industry partnering. But not all industry partnering. Universities partner with industry in many different ways, around students as products, around selling things on campus, around philanthropy and raising funds and things like that. The industry partnering that we are building right now is specific to research and innovation partnerships. That is not just industry sponsored research, although that is a core piece of some of the metrics we will be using to measure our success here. It is doing things like drawing stronger connections to universities, to industry, to create visibility to what we do, bring them on campus more, put them on advisory boards with us, create feedback loops for our faculty. So, we are doing informed research around product development and things like that.
That is one area. I am also building what we call social innovation. We have done some pretty serious benchmarking around this. There are a few universities that do this really well and have jumped out and led the way with this. UNC Chapel Hill does a really good job. Innovate Calgary does this. Jordana Armstrong is really fascinating in what she has developed up there, building a social impact fund and things. We have jumped on that bandwagon because I think it is really, really important for many reasons. It is about inclusive innovation.
It broadens and diversifies, the innovators that we can work with across our campus. Tech transfer has been traditionally focused on deep sciences, engineering, life sciences, pharma, drug development, and things. The social sciences, arts and humanities, college of education tend to think that it is not for them. In many cases, we tend to also think that way. But tons of their research is already community engaged.
They do their research in the community because their subjects are in the community and represent a cross section of our communities and have actually a much deeper connection to organizations in our community than even some tech transfer offices to do some of that. What we are going to be doing is building social enterprise, social ventures for profit and non-profit. It is about sustaining the impact of that work, that research that actually helps improve lives.
These are instruction manuals for counselling platforms and processes for creating associations in towns that support food drives. There is food chain and environmental sustainability involved and social equities and social justice advocacy is a big part of it. You can sustain the impact of that work through enterprise.
So, we can get deeper into that. The last part that we are building is what we call innovation training. This is an interesting jump off for us because it is focused more on career development for our faculty before inventions are discovered. So, we have accelerator programs, entrepreneurship education programs, where we work with faculty and their technology that they have disclosed to us.
We lead it through product development, proof of concept, teaching and things that, customer discovery. Innovation training for us is about getting to, especially our tenure track faculty earlier in the process, orient them to these kinds of opportunities and the type of research that solicits industry engagement and product development processes and entrepreneurial endeavours and theories around that, like risk tolerance and things like that. It is going to be a really interesting jump off for us. So anyway, those are the areas that we are building.
I was tapped to build out this umbrella by our leadership really because we had successes over the past four or five years, building our tech transfer office. People liked what was going on. We have had real momentum with our research enterprise. My vice-president for research, Dr Lisa Cassis is just a fantastic leader.
She is really, really, really awesome in the way that she leads by example, and she is supportive, who will admit that commercialisation IP is not her field, but just an incredible supporter of giving a long rope to us to build these things. It is about that momentum, capturing it and trying to do more of it. We have not been by any means the first university to combine the tech transfer with those other things. Some of the great universities do a lot of that. I know you are building this too right now, Orin, industry partnering.
Orin Herskowitz: Yes, totally. One of the things that I think makes this job so much fun is how protean it is and how much it is constantly changing and maybe we can talk a little bit about why that might be. We are launching all sorts of things at Columbia. We are launching centralized industry relations strategy across the university.
We are working on a new initiative to look at the ecosystem, the physical ecosystem and the innovation cadre that surrounds Columbia from our main campus on 116th Street up the Medical Center up on 168th and all the amazing research institutions that are scattered along the way. We have our new campus where our Mind Brain Behavior Institute is.
The business school is up in West Harlem and then nearby there is a Harlem Biospace, which is an incubator for biotech startups in West Harlem. We have CUNY City College campus and the Advanced Science Research Center and a whole bunch of new innovation style buildings that are going up in the neighbourhood.
Things are changing very fast and trying to understand what our role is in that ecosystem and how might it develop over time and what ways could it really make a difference in having a positive impact in society. Not only overall, globally through new technologies, getting to market, and not only in the national economy and regional economy for startups being created, but also in the local ecosystem in terms of jobs being created and serving the needs of the community. So, we have been getting involved in that.
Similar to you, we have been thinking a lot more about training of the workforce. Some of that is launching programs to teach the faculty at the university and the science graduate students at the university about how to capture their inventions and how to bring their ideas to market. We have this program called the Lab-to-Market Accelerator Network.
We are up to 11 technology accelerators now in different fields where we solicit for ideas. Actually, some of them are at Columbia only, but a lot of them are open to Columbia and NYU, Cornell, Rockefeller, Sloan Kettering, Mount Sinai, CUNY, SUNY, the whole local institutional economy, helping the faculty and graduate students learn. How do you capture that invention? How do you bring a product to market? How do you pitch to VCs?
How do you think about writing a business plan? What do your customers really want? How do you do that customer discovery? So, we have 11 of those now. Some of them are funded by the city, some of them are funded by the state, some of them are funded by the federal government, some are funded by local VCs like AlleyCorp or RTW Funds or Deerfield. Some are funded by big companies like Takeda or Sumitomo or IBM or Corning.
That has been really fun. Then we are also thinking about the workforce. So, last year we launched a program called the Diversity and Inclusion in Commercialization and Entrepreneurship Program. It was really an experiment. Two foundations in New York, the J Gurwin Foundation and the Digital Commons gave us a little bit of money to try and figure out how you engage female and underrepresented minority scientists in the life sciences to encourage them to become part of this commercialization ecosystem, whether it is at a job at big industry or launching a startup or going to venture capital.
We had 17 students at Columbia go through the program last year and the feedback was so positive that now we are planning how to roll that out in materials and in energy sciences. How do you roll this out to undergrads and Master’s students? And how do you roll it out to our alumni across the country? The same kind of cohort-building and training is not just useful for one subset of people.
My point of all that is actually I do not think my story or your story are unique here in any way. When you look across the country, and as president of AUTM, another thing I will come back to later, you probably have a unique perspective on this. AUTM, by the way, for those of you who do not know, is the Association for University Technology Managers. It is our trade group. When you look at the tech transfer offices across the country to even call them tech transfer offices is probably a misnomer at this point. Everyone’s jobs have changed so much in the last five to 10 years. I am curious, first of all, are you seeing that across the country? And why do you think that is?
Ian McClure: It is a fascinating concept. There are plenty of examples, both in structure and in raising up people in their careers to build bigger umbrellas, as I just described and as you have described.
University of Michigan’s Kelly Sexton oversees all of their technology transfer operations, but they are now called, I think, Innovation Partnering or Innovation Partnerships, that includes the tech transfer office. Robin Rasor I think, at Duke University is now also building a corporate relations industry, partnering part of her domain to run side by side with the tech transfer office.
We see this as a trend. On the one hand, just on the career development side, as you think about the career path of someone in tech transfer, it is fascinating. It is also awesome that it opens the door to additional things if you want that. If you are going through your tech transfer career, you have hit director of your tech transfer office, now there is an opportunity to do more, to engage more, to build different types of opportunities for the university.
On the one hand, it is great because it raises the profile of tech transfer because people are realizing that there are qualitative benefits to what we do that touch many different parts of the university around, not just sort of the electoral property and licensing deals and bringing in revenues and then even startups, but at the research level, orienting the culture of the university, building its place within the community and within the region, economic development.
When they look out and say, We want to do all those things, who is best to do it? They are coming to the leaders in the technology transfer office to ask them to build out more of those things, which is great. It is great for the profession. We are seeing this across the industry and it allows people like you and me to build more. We were talking before this about being a squirrel on cocaine, and I think it is a great joke on my team because it is something that my president has called me.
Orin Herskowitz: Did they call you that? Do I remember correctly that they called you a coked-up squirrel in the interview notes? So, someone called you a coked-up squirrel, and yet still offered you the job.
Ian McClure: They also told me not to burn the place down. It is so fascinating. Every time I look up, you are building something new. It is unique. Not everyone in the tech transfer space wants to even, or has the appetite to, build more things than just run the day-to-day operations of their tech transfer office, just already a super busy job.
But you have the appetite and it seems you have the support at your institution, that is a really important ingredient, to build things. The accelerator network you just mentioned and the diversity and equity inclusion program you just mentioned.
For you as the head of Columbia Technology Ventures to build those things is fascinating. How do you do it? Because I think there are a lot of people in the field who look and they say, Look at all that stuff that Orin is building, how does he have the time?
Orin Herskowitz: There are a couple of things to unpack there. First of all, I actually do not think it is all that unique. I think that there are a lot of people, and this is not falsely humble, as you mentioned, there are a ton of institutions across the country where you are seeing the offices and the people within those offices grow and change and just do amazing things.
I think about Christy Wyskiel down at Johns Hopkins and the changes she has brought about there, John Swartley at Penn or Nichole Mercier at Washington University of St Louis. Certainly, everything you have done down in Kentucky is amazing to see that.
UCLA has gone through some of these transitions. I know that the University of Utah under Keith and what Jay is trying to do at the University of Chicago. So, I think you are seeing this happen across the country, that the role of the so-called tech transfer office is changing incredibly quickly. And part of it is I think that the role of the university is changing really fast.
What universities see themselves as, why universities exist, seems to be changing. At Columbia, it is actually explicit. I think it is implicit in a lot of places, it is quite explicit at Columbia that president Bollinger, who is coming up on the 20th year of his term as president of Columbia, which is an incredibly long time, four or five years ago started talking about this idea of the fourth purpose. Universities have traditionally had three primary purposes.
One is to train the next generation of leaders. Second is to push the boundaries of knowledge. And the third is to engage in their local communities. And all of those are still incredibly important and obviously are the primary reasons universities exist and should be the primary reasons universities exist. But he talks about adding this fourth purpose.
The fourth purpose is to make a real impact in the real world on the problems that are most existentially important to our society and to our future, as humans, whether that is poverty or hunger or disease or pandemics, climate change, trust, trust in elections, trust in the information we see, trust in the news, things that really make us who we are as a society.
So, when universities start to think that way, it is different. There are probably people who would think that is good. There are other people who might think that is not good, that universities should stay in their lane. But when you have universities that start to think that way, and that are fortunate enough to be resourced to be able to think that way, that have the endowments or that have the budgets or that have the people, or that are in ecosystems that have the luxury of thinking that way, then the challenges that some of those things are things that other people at the university do.
Some of them are not. It is almost the volleyball court where the ball keeps falling in between people’s positions. It is interesting that as a profession, I think when you look across these other institutions that I mentioned that all fit that profile that I talked about of by and large, not always, but by and large great universities that have long traditions that are fairly well resourced, that are in major regions or cities that have presidents and VPs and provosts with the foresight to be looking at this stuff, it is interesting that so many times that seems to come back to the tech transfer office to get involved in.
I wonder whether there is something about our teams that makes them such good utility players. I do not do all this stuff, the people on my team are just unbelievable. On one hand, and I actually was just talking about this at my all staff meeting, one of my team, Ron Katz, who was just a phenomenal member of our team had been there for 16 years got poached by a venture funded startup in New York and is off to do his next great adventure and I am sure he will do amazingly at it, but on his way out the door, he said, we are doing so many things these days, it is hard to really understand, how they all tie back to our core mission? Why are we doing them?
I think it is really a two-part answer. Part of it is because someone has got to do them and often the kind of people you have in a tech transfer office are so flexible and have such diverse backgrounds that they can take on those roles. Part of it is that I really believe all of these things come back to what is the core mission of any tech transfer office, which is to take cutting edge innovations that could make a positive impact on society, on a local, regional, national and global basis and get them out into the world as quickly as possible, so they can go save lives.
Whether it is an industry relations program or enhancing your local ecosystem or building a diverse workforce or training entrepreneurs, they all tie back to that core mission, and at the same time broaden it. When you are hiring people at the University of Kentucky, how do you find the teams? How do you explain what the job is and then keep them engaged over the years?
Ian McClure: That is tough. I am actually leading a panel at the upcoming AUTM annual meeting on this topic. We are calling it, culture is King. The culture is so different at every university. We all do the same thing. Columbia Technology Ventures and my office of technology commercialization at their core do the same thing, but the culture around how they do it and the environment that they are doing it in is very, very different.
I will explain what I mean by that. We both have PhDs, smart people, and not just PhDs, lawyers, MBAs on our team that do our commercialization work, that do our licensing, they form the relationships with our faculty, they run our accelerators.
At their core, they are following some of the same blueprints on how that is done. There is best practice that both your team and my team follow. Like yours, my team is fantastic and just do just amazing things, they make me look good. But some of the incentives and the pressures, and part of the why we do it is a little different.
You are in a giant, super centre city in New York City and Columbia is an elite research institution in that city along with, I do not know how many other universities and research institutions are right there within a walk of Columbia.
Orin Herskowitz: A lot.
Ian McClure: The University of Kentucky is one of two R1 research institutions in the entire state of Kentucky. We are the flagship LAM grant research institution by far the largest institution in the state of Kentucky. For that reason, I have my state cabinet for economic development on speed dial. We do a lot that is about local economic development. I am sure you do too.
I know Columbia is leaned on and looked at as top of the totem pole in doing that in New York City as well. But it is interesting because we had a Kentucky Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame dinner two nights ago and the entire state is there, we have a table, and we know who the top 50 entrepreneurs in this state are. There is no way you could know that in New York city.
You know who runs maybe the top whatever companies. You have hundreds and thousands of those people. So, the resources are different. The pressures are somewhat different. Having my Cabinet for Economic Development, my state on speed dial is not a bad thing. I have been able to turn that into a very positive thing where as long as I can message what we do and align it with their industry priorities and priority missions around economic development in the state, we can build programs together. I am the PI on multiple state grant contracts, where they have funded projects that what I pitched to them they agree to be a great idea and we have built it together.
Orin Herskowitz: That is one of the things that I have been so impressed you have been able to do down there. It is really a model I think for many of us across the country. It is funny, when I came into this job, I assumed that the tech transfer offices across the universities would be fierce competitors with each other and that competition would get even more fierce the smaller you drew the geographic circle, because you have to assume that Columbia and NYU and Cornell will fight to the death.
That actually may be true in some ways for recruitment of faculty, for attracting students, for bringing in grants, but it is not for faculty collaborating with each other to generate new ideas. It is really not at the tech transfer level. It is even more not on things that are geared towards raising up the whole region or the city.
As important as that is, it is actually not something that we have seen a tremendous amount of engagement on from the tech transfer offices until moderately recently. Now you are seeing universities, you mentioned Kelly Sexton at Michigan. I know Michigan is deeply engaged in these small visit development centres and trying to generate this culture in Michigan. I know Johns Hopkins has been deeply engaged in Baltimore and trying to do that same thing for their local economy.
You have been incredibly creative at doing this by hook or by crook for the Kentucky, Ohio valley for the region. Am I right? You have got federal, you have got NIH grants for this. You have got commerce grants for this.
Ian McClure: Getting into this, Orin, I had no idea that I was going to be this involved in grants. I thought my faculty would get grants and I would just work with their intellectual property. But I learned quickly that there are ways to grow capacity in what we do through grant and another funding mechanisms. I also found that if you just have really good ideas and align yourself and partner yourself with other impassioned people around building these things, especially in the beginning, I had zero experience dealing with grants or the NIH or NSF or EDA.
I have gained that experience now, but needed other subject matter experts to teach me how this works because I think there are pools of money out there that can help us build some of this capacity. We have been successful. We have run over $15 million in grant funds. That is federal, NIH, EDA grant funds, as well as state grant contracts, that have allowed us to hire a number of people, build a number of programs. In a few cases, we have been able to build some of those programs on what you would call soft grant money.
Then of course, grant contracts go away and you do not want that program to go away. But because we built things of high value, I was then able to go to either my university or my state and say, We need to sustain this. Do you not really love this? Have we not done amazing things with it? Then they have agreed to sustain it and keep it going, which has just been fantastic.
Orin Herskowitz: Well, it is interesting. You talked about the sustainability question and this is something which I would be interested in your take on. This really comes back to teams. I am incredibly lucky at Columbia to have both an institution that has the budget and the interest in investing in people necessary to get this kind of stuff done, and also to have an incredibly talented team of generalists and specialists who can take on those roles, but it really brings up the question of staffing. I think one of the things that I talk to my peers a lot across our other universities in the country is, how do you think about staffing in the office?
The core of it is this question of the cradle to grave. And what that typically means is, for the sake of our audience if you are not familiar with the term, do you staff your office with people who are responsible for doing everything relating to a faculty member in their inventions? So, you will follow her inventions from the beginning, from the cradle all the way to the end, when they are licensed or abandoned, and you are responsible for everything along the way.
Or do you have an office filled with functional specialists, essentially hire people who are really good at doing something and then you have them do that over and over and over and over again in as many different ways as possible, but really focusing on what their strengths are. I would be interested in your perspective and just which way you guys have gone.
I know at Columbia, we are very much a functionally oriented office and I think part of the reason is this, if you get a grant and then you hire two people whose full-time job is supporting that grant, and then you lose the grant, all of a sudden you have to let the people go. That is horrible. That is the worst part of being a manager in general. Forget us, it is horrible on the people you have to let go.
Obviously, it is a huge impact on them and their families. It is enormously disruptive because you lose all that collective memory they have and all the expertise they have built up. Then you might get a new grant six months later and they are going to by then have new jobs.
You asked earlier, how do we get all this stuff done? One of the secrets is when I have Maria Rahmany on our team or Dmytro Pokhylko or Ofra Weinberger and her licensing team. We have people working across so many different projects and some of them will rise and inevitably some of them will fail. If those folks were working on one thing, then they would suddenly be wondering, How am they going to feed my family?
I have got to go find another job. If you have people spread across multiple projects doing the thing they are good at whatever that thing is, it brings a lot more comfort and security and allows them to grow and try new things and not be as dependent on just doing one thing all the time. I am curious about your perspective.
This is a really active debate in our field of how you structure the office. I am curious which way you guys have gone and why.
Ian McClure: I love this discussion and I love this topic. It is one that I addressed when I first got to the University of Kentucky back in 2016. I had to take inventory of, what do we have? How are we built? How are we structured? Of course, I then went on a benchmarking tour.
I went out and talked to you and 15 other university tech transfer leaders, just to talk about how they are structured and why. The why question is important to me. I had a preconceived notion before I came in that I did not want to do cradle to grave, but I needed to do that benchmarking to ensure that that was right and I was not missing something.
So, we are not structured cradle to grave. We are structured much more specialised. Part of that is because I came into university tech transfer from the corporate intellectual property strategy, corporate intellectual property licensing space, and the corporate licensing teams and intellectual property teams are not cradle to grave.
They have a business development team that originate some of the deals, bring people to the table. Then they have a licensing team that is effectively lawyers and contract experts that will paper the deals and negotiate them and execute them. Then they have either the business development team or others that deal with the engineers and the technical teams that do that separately.
Then they have a separate group that does the intellectual property, their specialization. So, you have high talent in focused places. One benefit is you get higher talent and more acute experience in certain important aspects of your process. But then it also requires communication protocols right across the team. You cannot do those things in silos.
You have to work together. You have to build a process that ensures collaborative team decision making around things like filing the patents, maintaining the patents, license to execute, designing around technologies, all of those things that corporations do in that process. I wanted to build my team like that, but I knew that most tech transfer offices were built cradle to grave. Now I think, most university tech transfer offices are cradle to grave because it does take additional resources to do it specialized because if you have limited resources, people have to do more than one thing. It is just like a startup company. The three founders are everything. They are legal, they are business development, they are the CEO, they are raising the funds. They are doing it all.
So, most tech transfer offices are built like a startup company because of limited resources. The ones that have the resources and are still also cradle to grave are the ones that are most interesting to me. But the way that you just described it, I get it. That makes tons of sense to me. It does. I am of the personal belief that the specialized talent in focused fields combined with fidelity to communication protocols that require programmatic, systematic decisions and meetings and discussions that have to happen at certain points, and everyone has to understand where those points are, that is what we have preferred and that is how we have built our team out.
We have three different teams. We have an intellectual property development team that is led by my senior associate director for intellectual property development. A 15-year patent attorney, patent litigator, understands patent strategy. He leads a three-person team and all they do is manage our patent portfolio, patent decision making, patent strategies. Then I have a commercialization team.
That team does not, however, do the licensing. We define commercialisation a little bit differently in the fact that they are not the deal makers, so to speak. They are literally working to de-risk and develop commercialization pathways, work with industry, but from a customer discovery feedback loop point. Then when people are at the table with interest and ready to do a deal, we hand it to our contracts team. That is our licensing team, and they will negotiate our licenses, and those are our licensing experts. That is how we are built.
Orin Herskowitz: I love that you said fidelity to communication protocols in an interview. So now that I know I am talking to a fellow ops nerd. I do not know what your experience has been. I have found that, as I mentioned earlier, I came to Columbia, not as the executive director of the tech transfer office, but actually as the chief operating officer.
I was brought in to look at systems and processes and finance and things like that, and then morphed into this job, which I knew nothing about and had to learn. But so much of just surviving in this field, no matter what level you are in the field, comes down to these processes, your own personal processes for being productive.
Then how do you keep the office overall productive? How do you manage your teams? I think a lot of that is being really stressed now. That is, we are trying to figure out what a hybrid office looks like. Maybe this is an opportunity for a rebirth. We all have to rely on processes much more than we used to because we are not necessarily face to face all the time and so cannot rely on the squishy stuff. I am curious, when you say fidelity to communication protocols, which I am going to say as often as I can now just because it is my new favourite phrase, what works for you guys? I am also curious, you are juggling a tremendous amount of stuff. What productivity tips do you have? What tools do you rely on that if I took away you would totally fall in your face?
Ian McClure: I think the first is culture building, that starts with a pretty strong orientation process. We have built an orientation book. It starts with an operating model. We have SOPs, everybody has SOPs, standard operating procedures, that define who is responsible for what tasks and, in sequence, how the tasks are performed.
But we have an operating model also that gets to core principles and values of the office. It is about culture building and everyone who joins our team from admin staff to team leaders, they go through this orientation where we go slide by slide through a long operating model and talk about the vision, the core values, the culture of the team, those kind of things.
We call our SOPs internal business processes. Those are the communication protocols, but the first thing on our communication protocols is not, Where in the process do you have to transmit information to somebody to make a team based decision? The first thing in our communication protocols are things like, when you write an email to faculty, you must write ‘Hi’ before you say Dr Smith.
Because what I have also found is communication protocols are not just about process, it is about tone and messaging. When you think about relationship building something as small as putting the word ‘Hi’ at the beginning of an email can impact the way that email is received so much. One of the most important things I have ever learned in my career was through a sales 101 training for one of these executive week-long training sessions I did in Chicago with a professional sales team.
They taught a few really, really important things that are just so simple. But most importantly, when you write an email, the first three to five words will dictate how the rest of the email is received. If you start the email just ‘Orin,’, you are already wondering, this could be aggressive, it could be just a question. It could be anything. if you come ‘Hi Orin’, guard is dropped.
Same thing with ending the email. You end the email by saying something that is quick. It takes an extra five seconds to write, ‘I look forward to hearing from you’ or ‘Really look forward to the next discussion’ takes no time at all to write, but if you end every email like that, it just makes the rest of whatever you just said, again, drop a guard.
Even if you had to say something aggressive in that email like, We may be dropping your path. If you fluff it with both in the beginning and in the end, communicative tone and messaging, it makes all the difference. So anyway, our communication protocols get into those things. We talk about those things very often. Then we get into, of course the process.
Orin Herskowitz: I love that. I absolutely love that. What I have said repeatedly is that the fact that we are all mammals is the best and worst part of this job. If this was all run by machines, it would be so much easier, but it is not.
We all have our emotional part of this that we all react to. It is just part of our daily lives. It is true in our personal relationships, it is true in our work relationships. It is true when we are talking to the faculty. It is true when we are talking to the graduate students. It is true when you are talking to your patent attorneys.
It is really true in a negotiation. Some of those core people management principles, it is surprising how important they are. There is a concept that I talk about a lot in my class, the principal of validation. When you are in a complicated conversation and by complicated, I really mean difficult, and by difficult, I mean people are probably going to yell at each other, just taking a moment to validate what the other person is saying and to make it clear you have heard them, even if you are going to disagree that you are validating their lived experience.
So, instead of saying, no it is like this or, That is wrong or, You are trying to screw me over, to be able to frame it just simply as, If I am understanding you correctly, you said blank and I totally understand why that is the way you are perceiving the situation and comes across as a totally reasonable approach. The way I am looking at this builds on that, but it is slightly different.
That is not BS, it is true. It is mostly true. Sometimes people are just lying, but most of the time I find, at least in these negotiations is that what the other side believes, they really believe that. If you come in and are, no your worldview is wrong, my worldview is right. Of course. It is going to devolve from there. If you just take that extra minute to be, I hear you, I get it, and I understand why you feel that way, and at the same time, I cannot agree to that because of X, Y, and Z, so let us try and find common ground. Little things that are so easy to get lost, especially because in our field we are all doing a hundred thousand things at every minute of the day. You said it takes an extra five seconds to say, Hi Dr So and so or, I look forward to hearing from you, but that could be the most important five seconds of your day.
Ian McClure: That is right. A hundred percent.
Orin Herskowitz: I have one last question for you, then I think we have got to wrap this up. You have a day job. You have another day job. You have a third day job. You have night jobs. I mean, for God’s sakes, you ran for president of AUTM and someday in our next interview, we are going to ask you why and how that has been.
But when you are not doing anything related to tech transfer, when you are doing something for fun, what do you do for fun? How do you balance all the stress and pressures of your professional life with the rest of your whole self?
Ian McClure: It is a really good question. It is probably the thing I struggle with the most. I am the person that likes to do things. I feel I am a socially busy person. At the same time my phone is always glued to my hand and I am always responsive because I feel this sense of guilt or pressure every time I see an email. I am ready to admit, and I have admitted this to myself, at least for a long time, I am a workaholic, but I am still working on ways to ensure that there is a work life balance.
It is one of the reasons why I came to Kentucky. I used to travel to Japan once a month and I wanted to at least slow that down. I have two little kids, six years and eight years old, the most amazing things to me in the world.
So, my fun is literally now just spending time with them. I love to golf. I am a former athlete, played college basketball. So, sports are incredibly important to me as an outlet, not just competitive outlet, but just a release. I still do as much of that, now it is on the golf course. I am one tenth of the athlete that I once was. I am trying to get better at the balance because I love to work. I know it is tough to say. Not that I enjoy working instead of other things.
Of course, everyone would love to do some things other than work, but I get lots of satisfaction out of accomplishing things and building things and finding a path and having success on those things. I am working on continuing to separate that and ensure that there is a clear separation between that and home life. I think it is okay to admit that, that it continues to be, it always probably will be, a challenge because I keep myself so busy the way you do.
I do not know how you do it either. I do not think you sleep either, but you probably understand the challenge, because I know you have kids too, and you get it, and you just have to create that separation.
Orin Herskowitz: I agree. I also struggle with that. I am older than you are, I just turned 50. On one hand, 50 feels to me very much like, I know there are things I used to be able to do. I used to box and do a lot of martial arts and I found that has been much harder as an outlet as I have gotten older, because it just takes a lot longer to recover.
On the other hand, 50 still feels, at least actuarially speaking, statistically, pretty young and there are many decades still of professional life ahead, and hopefully even more decades of personal life ahead, of actual life. It is hard to remember that this is not a sprint. I think especially if you are genetically coded to try and get stuff done all the time, you have to prepare for a time when your kids are going to be older and may not need you as much anymore, and the jobs you are in might settle down and may not be constantly changing so much anymore, but still might be fully professionally fulfilling.
Having that whole self and other things that you do that you find fun and engaging is a struggle, and it is an important struggle.
I feel I do not give enough time to really try to develop that side of myself. I am trying to. I have been trying to be better about it. I have been trying during the pandemic to really find ways to disengage, whether it is reading a book or, I got a bike. I have not owned a bike in 30 years, but I got one, just stereotypically middle-aged things to do, but I have found them to be really a way to refresh and get ready for the day. Ian, thank you so much for joining me today. I have really enjoyed this discussion. Thanks for making the time.
Ian McClure: Always Orin. Always an awesome time getting together with you, and I love to do it anytime.