cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Keith Marmer

Keith Marmer is the chief innovation and economic engagement officer at University of Utah and he joins us to discuss the greenhouse initiative that means the Pivot Center is anything but a traditional tech transfer office.

He also muses why the popularity of hiking and fly-fishing in Utah is helpful and ponders what his recent promotion to a cabinet-level position at the university will mean for commercialisation activities.

Marmer places a lot of value on building relationships, and also reveals why that is his answer whenever peers from other institutions ask him about a programme: “how did the university let you do this?”



Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Keith, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Thierry.

To start with, hopefully an easy question. Can you give me an overview of the PIVOT Center in commercialisation at University of Utah?

Happy to do so. The PIVOT Center is where technology commercialisation takes place at the university. We actually do three things in a fully integrated fashion at the PIVOT Center. The first one, as I noted, is technology commercialisation. We also are responsible for corporate engagement, corporate partnerships, and the third is economic development and owing to the nature of technology commercialization touching the other two, as I said, we do those in a fully integrated way.

You recently, and by recently I mean about two years ago, pivoted to doing, as you refer to it, innovation management. Can you talk a little bit about this?

Yes, I would tell you that tech transfer in my mind is transactional by nature. I think if anyone has been in tech transfer long enough, you recognize that the origins date back to patenting and licensing.

While those are fundamentally core principles and aspects of commercialization, I think what we have learned and seen over the last 10, 20 years is that more and more startups are the thrust and the focus of the licensing activity and all these support programs that many universities around the world are looking to create and expand, lend to the reality that a longer relationship beyond the transaction is required, that innovation in the lab continues in relationships throughout the several year process following the license.

So, the way we tend to think of this is not so much as transferring technology, but managing innovation over a longer period of time.

That makes sense. Are there any early lessons that you have learned so far in those first two years?

KM: Probably more than we have time to cover today. I would say that some of the key learnings and things that we stress with our team first and foremost, relationships matter. We put relationships first and we start with relationships with our faculty. That we are not looking to begin that relationship at the point of an invention disclosure.

While I know a lot of my colleagues feel the same, what we are doing is not just saying we want to know what you are working on in the lab. We actually want to be working with you in the lab. So, a lot of the programming that we are developing is geared towards fostering that relationship in the lab, not just with our office, but bringing investors, bringing entrepreneurs, bringing industry partners into that environment to help orient commercialization in a manner that industry is more accustomed to, and that influences the research, it influences the patenting, it influences the licensing, it influences the timing of when, transactionally speaking, we move a technology outside the university.

As an overall, we refer to that as our greenhouse strategy, which I am happy to get into. But in terms of other learnings, we are also trying to always find the balance between value creation from a monetary standpoint and having impact. The ultimate goal is obviously to have impact on society. We all are here for that purpose. But we also recognize that commercialization, successfully speaking if you will, is measured in dollars and so we want to always have an eye on each of those.

That makes sense. You touched on one thing that I wanted to talk about as well which was the greenhouse strategy. Can you tell me a little bit more about what the thinking behind that is?

So, the greenhouse strategy really just began to evolve, as you said, going back a few years as one of the chief learnings and it started around therapeutics and what we knew was we had many, many assets that were being developed in labs all over campus. We were starting companies probably earlier than was practical I will say.

These companies would struggle to raise money, struggle to attract talent, and the conversation that several of us on campus began to have was what could we do to mature these assets inside the university and get them to a point where they would not have these struggles, they could hit certain value inflection points. A lot of universities were having the same conversations at the same time that we were having these conversations at University of Utah. But what we said is, we felt like we probably needed to help our researchers understand how to do research in a way that was more akin to the way industry would do it because a lot of the feedback industry gave us was that we have to redo this study, we are not sure about the data.

So, bringing the expertise into the lab, but not build a biotech company inside the university. Be more nimble, not build buildings, build talent infrastructure. So, we brought in a small team and had them begin working across campus. But what we also did is we pulled together capital to be able to do the investing in these studies, whether it was in the lab or it got outsourced to a CRO so that we could again be nimble, move quickly if the lab was not set up for it.

Then the ultimate goal is to bring these assets further down the value chain, getting them closer to, or hopefully to an IND where we would go from preclinical studies to clinical studies. At that point, we felt okay if we could get to that point, a fantastic point, and if we get there great, if we do not, either because the science failed or we found commercial partners sooner, at least we would have done the work to obviate the need to be starting these companies earlier and have them struggle or fail.

So, we have been doing that for a couple of years now, and our strategy is such that we are agnostic as far as how the asset gets outside the university. So, we are not so worried about whether we start startups versus licensing to a large biotech versus a partnering deal where we joint develop.

We let the markets decide, and we bring potential partners and investors in to look at and connect with our researchers and our therapeutics greenhouse team every day, so that they can be tracking these assets, and those relationships also then form with our other stakeholder groups that allow these transactions to happen more fluidly.

That makes sense. That is very interesting. Does that mean you are hiring an unusual type of skill set in your office as compared to traditional TTOs?

I am not sure if our skill sets are unusual, comparatively speaking, maybe different in a couple of ways and I will explain. First, we do not have the title of licensing officer in our office. We do not have technology managers in our office. So, some of the titles are different. The key reason being we have brought in skill sets where we do still have people with PhDs or terminal degrees in a variety of technical or scientific areas.

We also have a lot of entrepreneurs and current and past investors working in the office, either full-time or as executives or entrepreneurs-in-residence. But we, as opposed to, I think a traditional tech transfer model where you have got one person shepherding the science, the intellectual property, the licensing, the startup all the way through. Ours is a much more interdisciplinary approach. So, we have greenhouse teams where the greenhouse is specific to therapeutics, specific to medical devices, et cetera and that expertise contains people with scientific background, entrepreneurial background, industry background.

We then have across a platform people who are doing contracts, we have people that are managing equity portfolio on our grant fund and our seed investment fund and all of the finance, administrative, all of that, that cuts across, and so I know listeners probably cannot visualise an org chart, but what you see tends to probably mirror a little bit more closely the way industry operates nowadays in terms of having cross-functional teams come at working to move a product to market. We tried to take that similar approach by mirroring an industry model.

You do have things that listeners will recognise, like incubators, you have a wet lab incubator, I think Altitude Labs. Can you tell me a little bit more about this as well?

We do. Companies need homes, and so we have a traditional research park where many of our companies go when they are first started. As you said, we have a wet lab incubator called Altitude Labs. It is actually an interesting story about how that got started. We were working to try and open up a wet lab incubator in our research park, and there really at the time were no other wet lab incubators in the region.

We were having some challenges just administratively within the university to get the incubator launched and a lot of our companies were struggling, they did not have a home. So, I happened to be having lunch with the CEO of one of our more successful startups companies called Recursion Pharmaceuticals that has gone on to go public and has hundreds of employees, but they stayed local here in Utah.

I was bemoaning the speed that we were running at or not running at more accurately, and by the end of lunch, we had mapped out on the quite literally back of a napkin, how we would do this partnership and less than a year later, even during covid, we were able to open the doors to a 15,000 square foot wet lab incubator, where a number of our companies are housed.

We are also using it from an economic development standpoint however, to attract companies from around the country, around the world, that likewise are looking to tap into Utah’s growing biotech ecosystem. We have given all of the companies that are resident in the lab the ability to tap into facilities across the campus for steep discounts or whatever discounts that we are able to provide. They have access to students and interns, and it is great for recruiting talent.

So, it has been a fantastic partnership. I think our first cohort of companies was able to raise well in excessive $50 million during the first annual demo day, subsequent raises. So, we are very excited to see the growth of Altitude Labs.

Has the new greenhouse strategy impacted your engagement from women and minority inventors. Do you track EDI numbers?

We do track EDI numbers. We began a few years ago. Our data is not as robust longitudinally speaking as I would have hoped it would have been if we had been tracking for decades, but we are tracking that data. We are also hosting programs to support women in entrepreneurship and going back to Altitude Labs, one of the things that we felt strongly about was supporting historically underrepresented founders.

So, we set a target of having 50% of the founders of companies housed in Altitude to be from historically underrepresented groups and we set up funding capacity so that we can reduce or eliminate the rent for these companies during their incubation period.

How do you generally find management for your startup companies?

All means necessary. Going back to what I said earlier, putting relationships at the fore. So, our communications and marketing team does a fantastic job. We are all globally coming out of covid and they are now hosting up to one to two events every single week. We use those events, not only for educational purposes, but networking purposes, and we are always looking to engage in a dialogue with potential entrepreneurs that are interested in either spinning out a company or even just mentoring a postdoc or a faculty member, giving advice.

We philosophically meet folks where they are. We do not tell them these are the needs and if you fit, great, if not, we do not want to talk to you. We have a very inclusive approach. We are also fortunate in Utah that we have a lot of natural resources. It is one of the greatest places in the world to come to ski and so we try to also take a very social approach.

That is one of the greatest places in the world to hike and fly fish and do all these other outdoors things. So ironically, during COVID, when a lot of folks wanted to be able to go outside, we capitalised on that as we did before and since, but met a lot of new people who were moving to Utah or just coming to spend some time in Utah to be outdoors and so we bond not only over entrepreneurial interests, but over social interests and so we try to also host a number of social events, whether it is on campus or at a ski resort or a hiking trail. We are always able to mix business with pleasure if you will.

One of my questions would have been, what are the things that work well in Utah? That sounds like that is definitely up there.

Indeed. We like to say that, while some people get business done on a golf course, we try to get business done on chairlifts.

I am here for it. Are there any particular challenges that you face in Salt Lake City or Utah more generally?

Some of the challenges that we have historically faced in Salt Lake City, we are breaking down a lot of those barriers. I think a lot of folks actually knew us for skiing and hiking, but may not have known us as a top tier research institution doing say $650m a year in research and having all these unique assets or the history of the startup companies or the technologies that have come out of here going back to the days of Adobe and Pixar back in the late sixties, early seventies, those technologies all came out of University of Utah.

The Jarvik heart, an artificial heart, now may not be the way we are trying to solve problems, but back in the eighties, that was very innovative. So, we have decades of legacy for being innovative that I do not know that folks are aware of. I think folks may not have thought of Utah or thought of Utah in a particular way.

So, the state and the city have been working and we work with a lot of the leaders from the city and the state to really promote Utah as a place where innovators can come and grow their companies. We have I think for more than a decade now been listed at many of the business rankings as one of, if not the top, states for business, our tech sector known as Silicon Slopes is home to thousands of tech companies, thousands of startups, but also big-name companies, again Adobe, Qualtrics and others that are hugely successful.

We have the fastest growing biotech sector of any state in the country. So, all of these things are leading to folks looking at Utah a little bit differently, and I like to joke that you can come for the snow and stay for the tech.

Has your relationship with VCs and corporate partners changed a lot over these last two years?

We have been working at least as long as I have been at the U, and I think folks who have been here longer than I have, to do a lot of outreach to VCs around the country, spending a little bit of time there. I am always inviting my friends in the space to again come do some skiing and hiking, but also come spend some time with our portfolio companies because you are going to love both of those things.

So, we are definitely always working on those relationships. We have a strong venture capital community and a strong growing venture capital community here in Utah. But I think what has happened both because of covid but also because I think the pricing of deals on the coasts has just become higher and higher, a lot of the VCs that I am speaking with are saying, Look, we are trying to find new sources of innovation, new sources of talent, new company pipeline for our portfolio. I think it has been great to be able to spend more time, a lot of it is by zoom, but now increasingly we are having a lot of face time.

We hosted for the first time in two years, our annual entrepreneur and investor summit back in March in person. So, we are building relationships where it is not us just calling and saying, hey, we have a company with an open round. We are really fostering those relationships that are lasting over just conversations that allow us to more organically engage on a regular basis, and when a company is looking for an introduction, we are able to just bring that into the conversation more naturally, as opposed to that random phone call that nobody likes to either make or receive.

One of the things that is recently happened to you personally as well, you have been promoted to a cabinet level position at the university. Congratulations on that. What are your hopes for working more directly with the president and interim vice-president?

So, the president of the university just took over as president about nine months ago. He had been prior to that, the dean of our business school for over a decade. I think he has a fantastic vision for how commercialization can not only help to drive our research enterprise. His goal is to see us grow to a billion dollars over the next seven to 10 years, and that is where working closely with our vice president for research comes in.

But in growing that pipeline from a research standpoint, we also want to be connecting with industry partners so that they can be participating at the earliest stages of research, working collaboratively with our researchers, bringing them onto campus, co-locating, collaborating, whether it is on a small project or a large-scale opportunity to solve some of the bigger challenges facing us, like energy and what have you.

We are excited to be able to have commercialization be recognised for the impact it can have going back to what we were talking about earlier. So, that impact by getting more great ideas that our faculty have out of the university to become products and services that impact society, but also those companies, we want them to stay here in Utah.

We have a thriving economy, but we also want to make sure the economy continues to thrive for years and decades to come, and the best way to do that is through this technology-based economic development and helping these companies grow here in Utah. So, it is that great circle of life if you will, that we are using these relationships over a long period of time, and with the president’s vision, he is looking for us to move faster, bring more resources to bear on these opportunities. He really put commercialisation as a centrepiece of what he wants to accomplish as a president.

Is that something that has already been happening? Are companies staying in Utah or have they traditionally gone to the coast where the money, the big money is?

It has historically been a bit of a mix. Some companies have been drawn to the coast by investors. Increasingly in the last several years though, I would say more of these companies are staying in Utah. It is a combination of factors.

Some we talked about in terms of investors coming and investing in Utah and recognising that the ecosystem here has grown. Some of it is also from a talent standpoint, we have been growing our talent pool very successfully, both at the university and having our graduates take significant roles at a lot of these companies. But also, it is a lifestyle issue.

The quality of life in Utah, a lot of folks say, Wow, that is important to me, it is important to my employees. I want to keep my company here. I want to grow it here because it is a great place to raise a family as well.

I imagine houses are a lot more affordable in Utah than they are in the Bay Area as well — or anywhere really.

Yes, well, they were a few years ago. I think what happened over the course of the last couple of years, a lot of folks who were in the bigger cities began moving to Utah and we have seen our home prices grow. It is great if you owned a home a while ago, if you are looking to buy a home today, you are maybe paying a little bit more money.

I think overall our home prices are definitely still dramatically lower than San Francisco though.

You have been a founder, you have been an entrepreneur-in-residence, you have been a consultant, you have been an investor, you led tech transfer at several other universities before coming to Utah. How did you end up in this career?

Accidentally. I had actually, after exiting my last company, I began consulting, as you said, and wanted to stay close to startups and began consulting to early-stage companies and had been doing that for a couple of years, and out of the blue, I got a call one day to see if I would be interested becoming a professor of entrepreneurship at my alma mater and I said, I am happy consulting, and they said, oh, well, you know, you still get to consult a day a week. In fact, you will probably make more consulting than we will pay you as a faculty member, but we would love to have you, and so, I said, sure, let us give it a shot.

What I found was I loved the teaching, I just did not love being pulled away from really working directly with startups. So, I went to the dean and I said, I do not know that this is for me, I would probably enjoy spending more time with startups, so maybe I could still teach a class, be an adjunct faculty member. And he said, no, no, no, we really want to have you here given all your experience. He pulled me into a meeting with the president of the university and they created this job for me. I forget what my title was, but it was in the business development realm, and one of the things fairly down the list actually was tech transfer that they were going to make me responsible for.

It was a small school, not an R1 school. They only had a few researchers that were doing really NIH or NSF-level research. I was really drawn to it and began attending a number of the conferences, meeting people. I really had no idea that this world existed. The companies that I started and the technology I developed, I was literally the guy in the basement tinkering and that is how I had started.

So, I was, as I said, really drawn to it. I discovered over time in my life that I am afflicted with entrepreneurial ADD, so tech transfer was this fantastic thing because I got to see so many things, meet so many people, see so many ideas and just be a part of this world that there are so many great people and it is genuinely, like entrepreneurship, it is a very giving community where folks are very collaborative, very willing to give back, give up their time, and so I was fortunate that some folks would educate me, bring me along.

I guess that was about 15 years ago and I have just really with the exception of a couple of years detour into venture capital, have really loved the time I have spent, the people I have had the good fortune to learn from and work alongside.

What are some of the lessons that you have learned in your career that you are applying today, or maybe would share with someone starting out today?

I would say, make sure it is for you. Tech transfer, I think a lot of people that I meet who are younger, they see it as a safe job or a see-the-world job. Or there are a lot of misperceptions, it is, I love science. I get to see science. Well, that is true. But tech transfer touches so many other things, or I like working with agreements. Well, that is true. But the types of agreements you get to work on will pull you into so many other things. So, it is not terribly siloed, and I think people see tech transfer as what they want to see, but I think when you have been around it for a while, what you begin to learn is it is very hard to stay a specialist.

You have to be able to learn so many different things. Increasingly I think what you are beginning to see these last few years is a lot of folks that are being recruited for senior positions in universities they are looking for folks with the diversity of background that may have a technical degree, but we also want you to have an MBA, we also want you to have been an entrepreneur or have worked in a startup or have worked in venture capital.

For me, this is a fourth career. My career path makes no sense on paper, and yet today it is actually the type of background that is lending to working in this environment because I am not singularly focused in my experience. So that is I think one of the big pieces of advice. I think the other is I always go back to the relationship.

Relationships matter, and you have to be someone who can be humble. You have to be someone who can cultivate a relationship. You have to be someone I like to say that can be multilingual.

You are going to have to understand that a scientist is going to speak differently than an engineer, that is going to speak differently than a university administrator, differently than an investor differently than someone from a large corporation, and so these skill sets are critical and if you do not have them be willing to be open to learning or find someone who can mentor you to really open your experiences up and gain that exposure.

That is quite interesting because usually when I ask people this question, they always talk about how it is such a great job and they get to do everything and I seldom have someone who takes a little bit more of a cautious approach, telling people that they really need to make certain that they are the right person and it is the right job for them. So that is really interesting.

Is there anything, and I realise you just did that at Utah, but if you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about the profession or how tech transfer is done more broadly?

If I had a magic wand. I think tech transfer has received such a bad rap for so many years because it is not always been clear what goes on behind the office doors. I think that tech transfer has been referred to as a black box for as long as I have been in the industry, if not longer. I think we are doing a better job helping our various stakeholders understand what it is we do, but I think the complexity of what we do every day is not well understood.

Oftentimes, I think, rather than view it as an opportunity to educate, we become defensive. I oftentimes get asked, well, how did you get the university to allow you to do this? How did you do that? And I keep coming back to, it sounds like a broken record, I cultivated these relationships. I shared my challenges. I tried to understand other people’s challenges. It is not perfect.

I am not perfect. I am looking at ways every day where I can do better to support faculty and recognizing that my support program for one type of faculty member is a colossal failure for another type. So, okay, I have to go back to the drawing board and learn how to support this group, and then there is the next and the next and the next, and recognising that all this has to be done with limited resources, so that entrepreneurial spirit if you will provides the drive to want to do that. So, I think the magic wand is helping, not others magically know all the cool stuff we do and all the hard work we do.

That is our job. If I had the magic wand to wave, it would be for all of us to accept the past history of this old black box moniker and feel supported, encouraged, empowered to engage with our university administration without fear of retribution, to be able to say this is not the greatest system. We do need more resources. We do need to reduce the friction. We do need to work faster. Let us come together and solve these problems together.

I cannot solve them without you. You cannot solve them without me. How do we do it together? And at the University of Utah, I think we have been doing that for a number of years. I am absolutely fortunate to have a president here who is supporting us even more and has put me in a position where I feel truly fortunate to be able to now go out and do things and continue to scale them at a big level. I do think that the lesson here, whether you want to call it a magic wand or just pragmatism, is we all have that opportunity if we embrace it.

I think that is a good use of the magic wand.

Are there any successes that have come out of Utah either in the last two years with a new strategy or before that, that you would highlight, whether it is a startup or a corporate partnership or licence?

Some of the successful licenses we have done are probably things that I cannot even talk about yet, but I am super excited because some of the deals we have done more recently are companies that have either recently raised significant amounts of capital, tens of millions, or have just done some mergers that are private mergers. Where there are even nine figure deals that are flying under the radar. It is why our communications folks are always frustrated. They are like, we are looking for the next press release.

Well, the company is not allowing me to speak about it. So, I will tease you with that.

I would say certainly we had a couple of our companies go public during covid in the last two years, which was fantastic. They got in right under the biotech wire for the IPO window.

Recursion, who I mentioned, and another company, Sera Prognostics. I was really excited to see that one of our covid sensor technologies, we did a number of licenses globally, and it gave rise to about half a dozen companies around the world. That was exciting and I think in the last fiscal year in the aggregate, our companies raised almost $900m.

So, there are a lot of great stories, a lot of great things. I am just excited to have also seen though the opening of Altitude Labs, the greenhouses that we are launching. We launched the therapeutics one during covid and in our next fiscal year, starting in July, we will launch an energy greenhouse, a medical device greenhouse, and a diagnostics greenhouse.

All that groundwork has been laid over the last couple of years. We launched an orthopaedics innovation centre about 18 months ago. I think within the next year, our first FDA approved device will come out of that effort. So, there are so many great things going on that I am excited about, but I know we only have so much time, so I will pause there.

As teasers go, you managed to cram quite a lot in there. So, the University of Utah is definitely a place to watch closely over the next few months and years.

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

We probably focused more on tech transfer for obvious reasons. It is the nature of the programme, but I do think, as I said, early on the nature of the work that we do, we see it as one of three core functions, the other two being corporate engagement and economic development. I know when I speak to my colleagues, they all tell me they are doing a lot of this work as well. Some of them will refer to it as an unfunded mandate.

Some of them will refer to it as it is the work that we do that feeds commercialisation. Some of them just recognize it, and I think we all increasingly recognize it, as part of tech transfer. So, I think if there is a future conversation to be had, the one that I feel very passionate about, or one of the ones that I feel passionate about is expanding the definition of tech transfer. This is why several years ago, we stopped really using the term tech transfer.

We use the term innovation management because we feel strongly that that virtuous cycle that does include working with many stakeholders, faculty obviously chief among them, but investors, entrepreneurs, industry. So, those partnerships, those relationships, managing investment funds, managing grant funds.

Then especially for public institutions, but I think even private universities play a role in their local economy, being able to recognize the economic impact. Again, we all know it is happening, but we do not necessarily measure it.

We do not speak to it. We do not make it part of the lexicon of what we do day in and day out. So, one of the things that I am spending a lot of time trying to do is try to give equal measure across all of those three core disciplines as being part of the world that we work in.

I have never had a guest come back for a second interview, but I think if I asked you, we could definitely fill another hour.

I would welcome that opportunity. Thank you.

Thank you, Keith. It has been a huge pleasure talking to you.

Likewise, Thierry, I appreciate it.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).