Stanford University may be a recognised world leader, but it must not rest on its laurels – sometimes that even means launching initiatives that others have long been doing. That is just one of the lessons Karin Immergluck, executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing, tells us on this episode.
She also discusses what the US can learn from its international peers, why TenU is an important component of her work, and she examines the importance of erasing bias in hiring processes, including for leadership positions.
Please note: the intro and outro have been omitted.
Karin, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you. It is lovely to be here.
It is a pleasure to have you. To start with, can you give me an overview of OTL, perhaps with some headline figures?
Yes, I would love to. In fact, the OTL celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, so I can even give you some headline figures from our 50-year history.
So, first it is important I think, for the audience to understand the context within which we operate to understand the numbers. So, Stanford has had a very long history of entrepreneurship and collaboration with industry. Going back to the 1930s, we had a very innovative dean of engineering, and eventually he became the provost, Frederick Terman, who became known as the father of Silicon Valley, and he was already encouraging students like Bill Hewlett and David Packard to start companies around their research results.
So later, after World War II, Stanford’s research park was established in 1951 precisely to encourage high tech industry to locate essentially across the street from the main campus and to establish useful relationships with the students so that they could see how to apply their research to real world problems and then of course, soon afterwards in the seventies, investors realised, Hey, there is something interesting going on there.
They moved across the street on the other side of campus along Sandhill Road and a strong, organically grown entrepreneurial ecosystem blossomed out of that and continues to this day. So, in that backdrop, as well as I should say for last year, in the context of the pandemic, the OTL received 594 new invention disclosures, which was a record for us. In the last few years, we have had between 550 to 600. We were issued 264 new US patents, we executed 121 new licenses, including to 22 new startups, or spinouts as they are referred to in the UK. What was really eye popping was the licensing revenue, which was $114m, that being the second most ever in a single year, and that was due in large part to the acquisition of one of our high-profile startups.
But I also want to note that we are getting preliminary figures from fiscal year 21, which just closed out last week and it looks like this year’s revenue will slightly beat last year’s, again thanks to the stock market at the moment and our equity holdings and a few startups that went public.
Yes, it is amazing, and that all in the context of a global pandemic. Then looking over our 50-year history, I think there are some really interesting figures to think about. So, from the time of inception through August 31st, 2020, we had managed 13,699 inventions, that led to 4,832 issued patents.
We have licensed founding technologies to over 415 Stanford startups, and in the course of those 50 years have generated more than $2.1bn in total licensing revenue. But what I find really fascinating is that of those more than 13,000 inventions, only 575 of them, so a very small portion, generated at least $100,000 in any single year and only 103 of them generated more than $1m in revenue in any one year.
I think it is also known through that there is a publication from Bloomberg that has a graph that shows, and this is still true, that only three of our inventions in the 50 years have hit the hundred million cumulative revenue mark.
I think what I want to show with that is that there are very small odds of hitting it big, and I think it is a really good lesson for those universities who think that technology transfer should be an income generator to support the university financially.
For Stanford, even though everyone is excited that we have had this banner year and you know that we will have another one this year as well, our leadership luckily understands that licensing income is a drop in the bucket when you compare it to our $1.9bn research budget. So, it is a nice to have.
And I would say, and this is true since OTL’s inception, our strategy has always been to plant as many seeds as possible, or to use a sports analogy, to get as many shots on goal as possible, rather than trying to guess which technologies will ultimately be successful.
That makes perfect sense. How big is your team? Because that is a lot of disclosures to go through.
We have 46 full-time employees and another, I believe, six part-time employees. Although as we speak, we are in the process of hiring more. So, we will probably expand by another two or three. I should mention that our office also manages all industry-sponsored research and industry collaboration, agreements, research agreements. So, that is part of that cohort of staff.
We will get back to Stanford in a second. Obviously, I want to talk about your own appointments as well. You are also a non-executive director of Edinburgh Innovations. How did that come about? How does this add value to your work at Stanford?
I suspect it came about through my involvement with TenU, although I know Kathy also I think helped out with Edinburgh and others in the UK but in the end, George Baxter asked if I would be interested in joining as a non-executive board member and I was happy to accept Edinburgh Innovations is a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Edinburgh, so they operate slightly differently than most of us tech transfer offices. They also operate in a very different entrepreneurship ecosystem than we do at Stanford.
I think they have to think differently than we do in some ways, perhaps even more creatively about how to promote their industry collaborations and entrepreneurship with their researchers. While they hope to learn from my experience in the Bay Area, both at Stanford and at my former institution, University of California, San Francisco, I feel like I can learn just as much from them, perhaps even gaining a broader view of technology transfer and what can be done.
You have mentioned TenU. How important is that to your work at Stanford?
I think it is very important to engage in idea and best practice exchange with other institutions, whether they are your peers or somehow different. It is a privilege of working at a premier university like Stanford with such a robust innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, but there is also I think sometimes a danger of getting too comfortable and developing a certain level of almost arrogance about the way things should be done.
It is really important not to rest on your laurels or become complacent while the rest of the world might be passing you by. So, I look at it like learning about different cultures when you travel, then coming back home and viewing your own culture a little differently. I just love comparing notes with colleagues from other institutions and just serving on the board of Edinburgh Innovations, TenU has just offered a great opportunity to expand the OTL horizons beyond the US, with respect to both best practices and new practice. TenU just launched a staff exchange program, which we are participating in to introduce our staff to new ways to approach familiar problems.
We can all learn from each other, regardless of the ecosystems within which we operate or size of our research budgets. It is great to be part of that community.
What is your view of the US compared to international peers? Is there anything you have already learned from others?
There are many colleagues in the US that are starting to branch out and adapt technology transfer to their local needs. But in general, it seems like the US tends to be a little bit more insular and we all do tech transfer in a similar way.
When you start to look outside of the US, Europe and Asia, technology transfer there is developed to accommodate the local needs and often looks very different from the way we do things here. Again, I think it is an opportunity to learn that things do not always have to be done the way that you have learned so far and think they have to be done. It just helps to open your mind.
I do not know if Europeans are just as insular as we are, but I feel like at least exchange across the Atlantic is really helpful to broaden our horizon.
I think it very much depends. From the people I have spoken to anyway, it depends on the country you are in. So, if you speak to people from Denmark or Sweden, they tend to be very involved in the Scandinavian ecosystem. If you talk to people in Britain, a lot of them are still very focused on the UK, now also because they have left the EU, so they have become more insular through that. A lot of them try to engage through ASTP and other organisations across borders as well.
One other appointment you have is on the executive board of Academic Venture Exchange. Can you tell me a little bit about this as well?
Sure. It is a non-profit matchmaking exchange essentially. It involves the top US research universities where we pool our talent resources in order to connect fledgling startup teams with seasoned entrepreneurs. We also have hundreds of investors looking for new investment opportunities on the exchange and it makes use of both a software framework as well as a wonderful executive director, Hamdi, which many people at least in the US know, who actively tracks encourages and provides guidance on developing those relationships between the fledgling, sometimes somewhat naïve, startup teams, which are generally composed mostly of academic researchers, and the seasoned entrepreneurs. Sometimes I think he has to act as a translator.
I imagine that can be a very fun, if not frustrating, job. You have mentioned the pandemic as well. You are also one of the members of COVID-19 Technology Access Framework. How did this come about? What does it do?
So, this was developed as a response to the Open Covid Pledge, which was developed by, amongst others, a Stanford law professor, and he asked us to sign on and we felt that it did not appreciate some of the nuances of what is needed to get certain types of technologies developed and made accessible by commercial entities, particularly in the biotech and pharma space.
So, in collaboration with our wonderful colleagues at Harvard and MIT, we developed the framework to allow for some flexibility and to find the appropriate balance between ensuring that IP does not create some sort of, even perceived, barrier to access while also ensuring that companies had what they needed to protect their investments.
So, first it focused the intention of everyone in our tech transfer office on prioritizing any research agreements or licensing agreements that were related to COVID-19. It also focused them on making sure that there was an absolute minimization of any sort of administrative burdens. We wanted to get the deals done quickly. It also included a rapidly executable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to IP rights for a specified period and for a specific purpose of preventing, diagnosing and treating COVID-19 infection. Finally, in consideration for that, we ask our licensees under those non-exclusive licenses for a commitment to distribute those resulting products in a manner that ensures the broadest possible access to all sectors of society.
Very laudable. Are there any changes brought about by the pandemic that you hope will become permanent fixtures in tech transfer, or at Stanford specifically?
Yes. Despite the fact that I, like many others, suffer from Zoom fatigue, I will say that the ability to better connect from programmes like Zoom or Slack, or the many others that are being used, Microsoft teams, from anywhere in the world where you have internet access and how that fits into enabling more effective communication is just really great for enabling telecommuting, flexible work schedules.
It really helps accommodate staff who maybe have long commutes or have family members at home that need care or you name it. It has been very helpful, not the pandemic, but I think it has been very helpful to learn.
I get your point. Are you looking forward to going back to the office? Are all staff meant to return to the office?
I personally am looking very forward to going back to the office. The main reason I love my job is because as many know, I refer to technology transfer as a contact sport, and I love being able to interact with people and by interact, I mean face to face. I really, really miss that and very much look forward to getting back to that. Whether it is interfacing directly with our inventors, with our researchers, interfacing with Stanford leadership or interfacing with companies.
Then of course, being together with your colleagues in the work environment, being able to reach out to them and brainstorm with them, I think that is all invaluable. I will say that although we had planned on returning to the office next week part time, so we were going to ease into it and think about what made sense for our office in terms of how many days per week we really needed to be in the office, given the Delta surge and certain trends happening globally with respect to the pandemic, we decided we were going to push back and delay the required return to office until the beginning of 2022.
People are still welcome to go into the office. I finally went about a week ago, it felt great. I know some of my colleagues are starting to go in. I think the management team will probably start to meet in person every week or two. Nonetheless, Stanford is taking utmost precautions with respect to requiring vaccination, requiring mask wearing indoors, and yet we just felt that some of the staff did not feel completely comfortable and we wanted to listen to them.
I think that makes perfect sense. I am glad that where I am, we still have to wear masks in quite a few places as well and obviously I am fully vaccinated because I am a sane person.
I do want to move back to talk about Stanford specifically. Are you actively thinking about how to improve equality, diversity and inclusion among your portfolio and engagement for researchers?
Yes, we are. In fact, a team of researchers at Stanford just conducted a study, amongst other things, on female participation in technology transfer at Stanford and a couple of their findings that were interesting were that the percentage of female inventors increased over the past 20 years from nine and a half percent to 14 and a half percent.
Still not great, but we are making improvements. And the percentage of patents that included at least one female inventor also increased from 20% to 34%, that 34% mirrors, approximately, the proportion of female faculty at Stanford.
Again, it needs work, but we are making inroads. Clearly, this indicates that we need to do a lot more. So, one of the things that we have tried in the past year, and this goes beyond gender equity and really trying to be more inclusive is to run social media campaigns highlighting inventors from certain underrepresented populations.
We have had a very strong response to campaigns that we have run so far to highlight for example, female inventors and entrepreneurs, inventors from the Asian community, inventors from the Latinx community. I think will continue to do that sort of thing, while also thinking about how we can increase our outreach to those underrepresented populations on campus.
Obviously, you are a woman in a leadership position, which is always good to see. How does your office fare in terms of representation?
It is funny, we joke sometimes that we are a very female heavy office. So, from a gender equity perspective, we probably should hire a few more males. In terms of other forms of diversity, I mean the Bay Area tends to be a diverse population, but we could certainly increase the diversity much more. I think one way to do that is think about how we go about recruiting new staff.
Previously we tended to always tap into the same channels of recruitment, and now we are starting to branch out and think about, are there ways we can reach populations that we do not normally reach, and that might help to diversify the pool?
Then of course it goes on from there thinking about how to interview people in an unbiased manner, even just looking at their resume and really questioning, are you looking at this with a bias or not? There are so many steps that can be taken. These are small ones that we are beginning to take.
Yes, small ones, but I think ones that could make a really big difference if you do them well. Do you run any internship programmes or how do you generally get new people into the profession at Stanford?
Yes, we do run an internship programme. It is fairly new. It is I think a year and a half old. It is focused currently on students and postdocs within Stanford, but interestingly has generated quite a diverse group of interns, and of course that helps provide a pool to tap into for future employment.
I am guessing that was not by design, the diversity in that case.
It was not. We just kind of put the word out there that, hey, we have this new internship program. If you are interested in learning about entrepreneurship, intellectual property, new venture creation come work with us, and we will help you start along that path, and the response we got was very interesting.
Do you have any ideas on what could be done to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities at the top of tech transfer offices? I know that is a big question to ask.
That is a big question, and I think part of my job in terms of thinking of successors eventually for the time when I retire will be to make sure that I am promoting the visibility with an eye to diversity and inclusion and equity, making sure that you are giving a diverse group of people a chance to gain visibility with leadership external to Stanford across the board really.
I have every faith in you that you will pull it off. But yes, I imagine it is a tall order. Notwithstanding the advantages of Stanford’s location near Sand Hill Road and Silicon Valley, Stanford Research Park. Are there any other advantages or strengths that you have when it comes to tech transfer?
Yes, there is this wonderful, very collaborative culture within Stanford and also a lovely combination of both bottom-up and top-down development of new programs and as a result, a really broad variety of entrepreneurship related programs have literally organically sprung up on campus. At last count, there were well over 40 and some of them are geared to specific subsets of the population, whether it is students or postdocs or faculty, females, males, engineering, life sciences, there are different goals for each one.
But of course, it is like a snowball effect that it really helps train and educate entrepreneurs within Stanford and makes use of the expertise that is already on campus. Of course, most of these programs also bring in local industry executives and venture capitalists to participate as advisors or trainers and mentors.
That is an invaluable benefit to being at Stanford and a strength. I think the other strong advantage is Stanford is very consensus driven, and as I said before, very collaborative. In that sense, these programs are all very happy to work with each other and collaborate and to not compete with each other.
No one wants to give the impression that their programme is competing with someone else. We all want to pull together and row in the same direction. That is something I think that does not exist at many institutions.
Certainly, I do not think on the scale that it does at Stanford anyway. Are there any challenges that you face at Stanford? Do you have challenges Karin?
Yes. We do have challenges. I will tell you that probably the biggest challenge is complacency and this feeling of, hey, we are at Stanford, venture capitalists are just right up the street at Sandhill Road. They are circulating on campus. We really do not need to do much. In the meantime, our peers, regardless of whether it is in New York City or southern California or Texas or Chicago, they are out there promoting, marketing themselves, eagerly developing new programmes and they will pass us by if we become complacent.
Our president once said in one of his speeches that he wants Stanford to think of themselves as Avis in the rental car market, because Hertz was always number one and Avis was usually number two, and Avis’s motto was ‘We try harder’. He said that we need to constantly be trying harder. We cannot rest on our laurels. So, one of the challenges is to think about, Why are we doing things this way? Could we be doing it better?
I was talking to a faculty member about pitch days and he said, Does Stanford even have an organized, consolidated, coordinated pitch day? And I said, no. And he started to laugh, he said, Why? And I said, I think because the perception till now has been that we do not need it.
This is an entrepreneur from Stanford who again started laughing and boy, that conversation just started snowballing into a discussion of, that needs to change.
So, we need to bring all of these entrepreneurship programmes together and think about how we put together this fabulous pitch day, because we are pretty sure a lot of people, investors and others alike, would love to hear about what is happening at Stanford and get in on the early stage of the students talking about their coolest inventions, the postdocs… I think that is honestly the biggest challenge.
It is funny because before talking to you, my impression would have been, well, obviously Stanford would have a pitch day. How would they not have that? I can see where you are coming from with the complacency and thinking everything is fine, and to a certain degree it is, but it will not stay fine if you do not keep up with what is happening.
You spent 14 years working in tech transfer at UC San Francisco. You were a licensing officer for nearly three years in the office of the president before that. How did you get into tech transfer?
This is kind of funny. So, I was doing my PhD work at UCSF and started to think about what I wanted to do when I was finished, because I knew what I did not want to do, which was continue on doing bench work. I realized I was not a scientist at heart, even though I love learning about science. So, I decided I wanted to apply it somehow to business and started to do informational interviews, reading articles.
I do not want to date myself, but many years ago, and just trying to think about what is out there for a newly graduated graduate student, who, by the way, also had two children. So, extensive travel was out of the question. So, I learned about technology transfer and probably really naively just assumed, oh, cool, there is a technology transfer office at UCSF, I am just going to walk over there and see if they offer internships and sure enough, Joel Kirschbaum, who was the director at that time said, Yes, in fact they do.
It turns out they were the only University of California campus at the time from the ten campuses that was offering internships. So, I was quite lucky and Joel hired me as an intern. I was not getting paid initially and I worked part-time while I was writing up my thesis. Then loved it so much that I took the next opportunity to get a full-time job at the University of California Office of the President, which was just across the bridge in Oakland.
Since then, I went through the ranks at University of California, and now am thrilled to be at Stanford.
What brought you to Stanford other than it being an obvious promotion from your previous job?
I got to know a bit about Stanford through the many collaborations between Stanford and UCSF. I also started to work pretty closely with Kathy Ku and her boss at the time, Ann Arvin, the vice provost and dean of research back then, on a couple of major research alliances that both Stanford and UCSF were involved in. I think it was really through that relationship that I got to know Stanford a little better. Of course, honestly, since I started in technology transfer, Kathy Ku was known as one of the Queens of technology transfer along with Lita Nelsen of MIT. So, at that time I never really dreamed that I might one day replace her, but as I was collaborating with Kathy and with Ann, Kathy mentioned to me at one point, Hey, I am going to be retiring in a year or two, are you moveable? Which I laughed at because I was like, Sure, I only live an hour away, but I knew what she was talking about. Look, working at a place like Stanford is a dream come true, so of course, when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.
When you did join Stanford, you said at the time you would try to channel your “inner Kathy”. I remember when we met in Houston at our own conference in 2018, you said it had been a wild ride — obviously that was only a few months into the job for you by that point. Looking back now, what has the experience been like?
So, I would say the short answer is it has been a real joy ride three and a quarter years in. Initially, it was quite overwhelming. I was absolutely elated like I said, to join such a fun and intellectually stimulating place that was a complete university so to say, because previously I had worked at a university that was focused solely on life sciences.
Now I was at a place that had engineering and physics and computer sciences and a business school and a law school. That was just so exciting to be able to pull all of those different parts into technology transfer as well. But I will also say it is very different to join an internationally well-known technology transfer office with a long history than it is to grow within a smaller office and build it up to something greater.
So, the OTL was already doing really great things. I did not want to come in and mess it up. I also realized that some changes might be needed, but the first thing I really needed to do and where I spent my time and effort was to get a sense for the Stanford innovation and entrepreneurship landscape. Stanford is very distributed.
As I mentioned, there are 40 some odd entrepreneurship programmes, and it is not run in a centralized fashion. So, I needed to understand that and really, more importantly, to understand the culture, which is quite different from where I had been. What I will say now is that, I mentioned this before, Stanford is just this fantastic, consensus driven, highly collaborative place. There is a strong sense that we can all learn from each other, that we all look out for each other, and that we all need to pull in the same direction.
I have also since learned through my many interactions with Stanford’s senior leadership that they function as thought partners rather than a top-down dictation. It is really as if they try to help you come to the right conclusion and not only do they challenge our ideas, but they welcome thoughtful discourse when they present ideas. So, in the end, we have tried to instil the same collaborative culture within the OTL. Just generally I would have to say it is just an awesome place to work. I could not be happier.
That is good. I am very glad to hear that. What lessons have you learned in your career so far? And is there anything you would say to someone starting out today?
It is really important to keep asking yourself what you are doing well and what you could be doing better, both in terms of your standard practices, your productivity, but also with respect to staff engagement and satisfaction, which is really important to your success. There is always room to improve.
There is always something to improve on. So, the trick is to keep identifying and addressing those areas while maintaining the things that do work well. You also need to look at your changing environment and adapt as it evolves because we need to adapt to meet those changes and address those changes. Another invaluable lesson is, get to know your stakeholders, understand what motivates them and develop close working relationships with them.
So, check in with them regularly when there is not a pandemic have lunch or coffee with them, and this will help you later when you need to get their buy-in for potentially controversial decisions or new initiatives.
If you had a magic wand, is there anything you would change about how tech transfer is done?
Yes. I feel that at too many institutions, the focus is on money. I happen to be one of the lucky few that enjoys the benefits of having enlightened leadership on this front with respect to expectations. But I know that many of my colleagues are under tremendous pressure from their university leadership to just focus on increasing revenues and I think this leads to very unfortunate behaviour that is not in the best interest of our planet or society.
That leads me on neatly to my next question, which is, do you have any examples of successes from your portfolio? Whether or not they are financial and from what you said, I assume they would not be.
I was going to say, success is in the eye of the beholder, and it can mean different things. I personally like to focus on impact, but I can talk about a few interesting startups. So, I think the first one I will start out with, which does happen to be a huge financial success is a startup called Forty Seven, and more importantly than the financial success, we actually have a therapeutic drug in phase three trials for two different oncology indications and other trials are ongoing for other indications.
The technology is based on blocking a signal from cancer cells that prevents the immune system from recognizing them as foreign and attacking them. So, in other words, it restores our immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells. One of the reasons I like this is the portfolio represents for me a case study in researcher patience with respect to not starting a company too soon, as well as in the university tech transfer office’s willingness to build and financially support a broad IP portfolio for many years while the technology was developing while the lead inventor was developing those tools that were needed to gain the appropriate understanding of the pathways he was investigating, and that included initiating clinical trials at Stanford.
So, the ultimate startup license to Forty Seven included more than 30 patent pending or patented inventions that were disclosed over a period of 10 years before the license was executed in 2015 and I think it is one of the few cases for which the OTL made a bet about investing resources in a big portfolio, but also with the support of the lead faculty member.
I would say with the proliferation of translational and gap funding programmes to push technology assets towards greater maturity within the academic environment, I believe that we will need to be holding on to intellectual property portfolios for longer and investing more into the development and broadening of those portfolios. That is going to be a high order for some institutions, which are put on very stringent patent budgets.
But using this as an example last year, which was five years after the license was signed, Forty Seven was acquired by Gilead for $4.9bn, and now we have a drug in phase three trials.
I think another example that I really love more just because of how the technology came to be is Ceribell. They have developed a product that they refer to as a brain stethoscope. The idea came to the Stanford neurologist who is a co-founder while he was listening to a concert performance by the Kronos Quartet, and he realised that an electric brain signal could also be transformed into sound. So, then he collaborated with a Stanford music professor who is an expert in musification of radio signals, and they were able to convert brain signals from epileptic patients into a sound-based brain monitoring system so that they can easily identify non-convulsive seizures in epileptic patients and treat them rapidly and appropriately. That is that an example of great interdisciplinary work.
And with a discipline that is often not considered one suitable for tech transfer or where you would not expect an innovation of that magnitude to come out of it. That is phenomenal. We are very nearly out of time. Is there anything else that we have not covered that you would want people to know?
Possibly the exception that in addition to focusing less on money, I think it is time for technology transfer to also focus on social impact, environmental impact, and begin to train entrepreneurs to think of those, to think of the impact that they will be having on the planet and on society, and how can they minimize the risks.
The so-called ESG factors minimize the environmental risks, the risks to social justice and other societal issues. Think about corporate governance. I am hoping that that will be a new trend in technology transfer because I feel like we can be leaders to start to move the needle towards greater social impact of our technologies.
Is that something that you have started encouraging at Stanford?
There is a new programme emerging with which I am collaborating to train what we refer to as the next generation of entrepreneurs to think about impact first, positive impact on the planet and on society. And the OTL is just launching a translational funding program and we intend to also require our applicants to at least try to identify potential risks in these areas and how they might be able to address them downstream if they were to start a company.
I look forward to learning more about that. I think it is very much needed looking at how the planet is doing at the moment.
Yes, I agree.
Karin, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to talk to me. It has been a huge pleasure to learn more about Stanford, and to reconnect with you. It has been quite a while since we talked as well.
The pleasure was all mine, Thierry.