Mary Albertson became director of the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) at Georgia Tech in July 2022, having previously worked for University of Utah’s PIVOT Center and having spent 27 years of her career working at Stanford University.
She’s been president of AUTM and received its President’s Award in 2015 for her long-standing service.
She tells us what brought her to Georgia Tech, what the institute could learn from Utah and Stanford — and vice versa — and how she’s tackling an incredibly long to-do list that includes dramatically expanding the OTL’s capacity.
She reflects on the challenges she’s overcome in her career to date and ponders how students can become valuable assets to technology transfer offices.
Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.
Mary, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you very much.
To start with, hopefully an easy one. Can you give me an overview of OTL, perhaps with some headline numbers if you have them?
Yes. We have been receiving around 240 disclosures. That is down from what it was before the pandemic. We filed about 149 utilities and 80 patents issued. This is all fiscal year 2021. 69 technologies were licensed. Nine of the licences were to startups, and the total active number of startups is 103.
Wow. Can you tell me a little bit more about the other parts of the ecosystem that you have at Georgia Tech? Because obviously, OTL is not a standalone unit.
Right, and I am finding out since I have been here, there is much more than I would have anticipated in the ecosystem. We have aspects like Venture Labs, which manages helping our startups, and that was an obvious one to me. We have a group, a programme called Create-X, which works with undergrads and helps teach them how to do startups, and they actually form companies. There are several accelerators that we feel like we should make sure we are in touch with to get any technology out of there that would be useful to commercialise.
There are several commercialisation shops in different colleges where they have their own little group to promote having their faculty and students make disclosures and get into the commercialisation process however they can. It is very important for us to coordinate with all of those groups because they have services that can help us, we have services that can help them, but also from an education standpoint, we know some things they may not be as familiar with. So, I have been spending a lot of time since I started meeting with all of these people and trying to figure out who they even are.
And the first question I ask all of them is, what can we do to help you? Because I am convinced that we have resources that will help all of these different organisations.
Is there a certain point where your work starts and stops, or is it more of a spectrum?
It is definitely a spectrum. In particular, the education phase, because the inventors need to be educated at many different stages. They may understand they need to disclose an invention, even getting them to that point, you need to talk about what your resources are.
If they are already involved in one of these groups that I mentioned, they still may not understand when they are supposed to disclose. So, getting the education out there, educating the people who are running these groups, they know a piece of what they do, they probably do not know all of what we do and then all along the way, educating both the groups and the inventors.
Georgia Tech is currently implementing its research next plan as part of that OTL is expanding its capacity by 80%. Can you tell me a little bit more about this process and what it will mean for the office?
Well, anybody who has to increase an office by that much knows it is a challenge in many different ways. I have an excellent team right now, truly excellent, and we want to hire people who fit in well with that team, both culturally, but also skill level, performance level, and it is a challenge to hire right now.
Many, many offices have openings for licensing associates, so pick where you want to live and there is probably a job there. Currently, I have seven openings, which is nuts. I just hired two licensing associates, have to hire two more, and then all of these other positions.
But what that means is that our office has great support from the VP of Commercialisation and the VPR, or they would not have given us the budget to hire all those people. So, they know it is important for this plan, and I have the challenge now to implement it.
And what a challenge you have got when you join as well. It is not a small task. Is it generally easy to attract people to Atlanta? Are they quite willing to move if they are not already there?
Well, we have had problems even getting people to apply, frankly, and both here, and when I was at Utah, one of the biggest things that incentivised people was they already had family there or something like that. But I mean, Atlanta is a great place to live, and it is got a lot of things that are attractive.
So, we just need to get people to apply and be able to speak with them, and then I am convinced they will be willing. Georgia Tech has world renowned scientists, so the raw material, the inventions, are excellent. Atlanta is a great place to live. I think it is just getting the people to apply.
I guess that is the difficult part. This is a big question, but what is your vision for the OTL?
It is to help change the culture on what commercialisation needs, and again, what the resources are, but there are a lot of things. MIT has a totally different culture, and I am not saying we can be MIT, but trying to impress upon people that that is a very valued aspect, that they participate in entrepreneurship and commercialisation.
It is a cultural change and a lot of that is going to be promoted by outreach, frankly, in telling success stories and about the university thinking it is an important component, and the university does. One of the big goals is to have Georgia Tech known as one of the best schools for entrepreneurship and commercialisation. So, it is definitely important.
One interesting way in which Georgia Tech is tapping into a student population specifically for commercialisation is the Startup Hackathon where IP is made available to students to see if they can come up with a business plan. Do you think generally students will become an asset increasingly for OTL and perhaps specifically, but more broadly, tech transfer in general?
Absolutely. One of the other programmes besides the hackathon is Create X, which I mentioned earlier, and the whole programme is for taking undergrads and helping them learn how to start companies. So, that is something where we can get input from those students as a resource.
I am hoping to take some of them and have them come and be interns because they know a lot about the process, certainly the startup process, but also just where that fits into commercialisation. But in general, very much so. One of the ways that we intend to do that is like many offices have internships and use their enthusiasm and their knowledge to help us with the process.
That would have been my next question. Do you run any internship programmes? And are those internships then for them to learn about startups or is it internships to learn more about the tech transfer side, licensing deals and those kinds of things?
So, internships in our office. We do not have a programme right now. It is on my to-do list, I have a long one, but I have started gathering information from several sources on how they set them up and what kinds of checklists they use or forms they use to fill out, and how they get someone to train the interns, because that is one thing I am concerned about, which is, how much manpower does it take to run this programme? Definitely going to get into that. But in our office, they would learn more about the evaluation and the marketing of the technologies. If they wanted to learn more about startups, they would go to one of these other groups.
I do not know if Venture Labs has an internship programme, but they are the ones who are more immersed in helping the company start.
Perhaps linking all of this back to the entrepreneurial culture at Georgia Tech as well. Do you generally find that the students at Georgia Tech are quite willing or interested in launching their own companies, whether it is based on IP or not?
Yes, and I do not know how it compares to other universities because that is not something I have heard talked about a lot, which is where the students come into this. But we definitely have grad students who will go out and found companies or be co-founders or very involved with startups that came out of the research they and their PI did. T
hen again, the Create-X programme is just students, and they have a lot of applicants for that. That is, again, one of the things we are really trying to get out there and do with this outreach is I want to hit the grad students. They have great ideas, they are involved in some wonderful research and people that age are very enthusiastic generally.
They have the ambition of running your own company and probably still young enough and energetic enough to do it. Do you track any numbers regarding engagement from women and underrepresented minorities?
Unfortunately, we do not. That is something that when I was at Stanford, we started doing and even went back retrospectively and tried to fill out the data because it is important. But right now, Georgia Tech does not track that.
Okay. Do you plan on maybe running any programmes aimed at those groups?
Yes, and I have talked to, again, other universities, plus AUTM has a very active group in promoting equity and inclusion, so we definitely are going to set up some training to specifically help female faculty members and grad students feel more inclined to disclose inventions and help them along the way with founding company. So, we do have a definite intent to do that.
Okay. That is good to hear. Perhaps on that note, what are the opportunities in Georgia Tech’s ecosystem as it stands today?
Well, in all of those different groups I have talked about, there is a lot of opportunity in Georgia Tech itself to come in at whatever level you want, just disclosing, starting a company, getting involved in an accelerator. In Atlanta in general, we have some big companies that are good licensing opportunities, but we also have a startup community.
If you look at what that means, do people stay in Atlanta or not? And is there a reason why? There are definitely startups that stay in the area. We found that raising money is not the problem, having good management in the area is. There is a wealth of knowledge here, and we have lots of workers, but finding the management people is what is tough. Then, once they raise money, the issue is some of the companies can stay here, some of them need to go, the VCs want them closer.
Then some need to leave because they want to create a synergy with other companies that feed into their business. They want to be closer to them. So, there are reasons why they do not stay, but some of them do.
Is that something that has been improving over the years. Are more companies staying now than used to maybe five or 10 years ago?
I do not know the trend on that, but since there are more companies, the absolute number is, there are more that have stayed, but percentage wise, I am not sure.
That is fair. Is there enough real estate for startups? Is Atlanta big enough or does it have infrastructure like wet labs and so on?
There is enough, real estate is specifically built out. They could use more, but right now it is not the rate limiting step.
The management is, from the sound of it.
I suppose it always comes back to the people. The same with your office, finding the people is always the tricky part. Is there a thriving industry in Atlanta that is looking for licenses or do more of your licenses go maybe across the US or even internationally?
Well, right now, more of our licenses are going across the US. We try and give preference if they are in Atlanta, but when we are licensing, we do not discriminate. We do not say, no, I will not go until I get an Atlanta company.
That would limit you quite a lot, I imagine if you insisted on an Atlanta company. I am actually not sure. What is Atlanta known for? What is the local industry?
Well, because Georgia Tech is here and is one of the big presences, there are more engineering type companies, and then there are some very large companies. But we have found that on the bio side, it is starting to grow. I would say, it is not big yet.
Is that the same you find with your own startups then, are they more leaning on engineering, or do you have healthcare or other sectors?
I feel like I should have looked that up before I spoke to you, it just dawned on me that I did not know that much about Atlanta as a city. So, that is quite interesting to hear.
Well, for example, two of the bigger startups, one of the companies is Pindrop, and they are still in Atlanta. They are an information security company. They do this thing called acoustic fingerprinting, and it is meant to be a security as far as phones are concerned. Then another company Sila Nano went to California, they are a battery company.
But what is interesting is one of the Georgia Tech faculty members who is a CTO of this company just received this designation they just created in this last year called the Regent’s Entrepreneur Faculty. So, he is a region entrepreneur. It is one of those recognitions that being entrepreneurial is a positive at Georgia Tech.
You have already mentioned that you joined Georgia Tech from Utah. You spent some 26 years at Stanford, so you are slowly moving eastwards throughout your career. You are also a past president of AUTM, as I am sure many people will know, and you received a President’s Award in 2015. How did you get started in this? What first drew you in?
I would say it was an accident. Back when I started, tech transfer was not a career at all. I had been working at a biotech company in the business development. We acquired a company and as part of that, the business development person at that company needed to help us with a project we were doing.
It turns out she was working with Kathy Ku at Stanford and said, please apply for this job. I thought I would go there and work there two years, get a job at a startup, that was it, and stayed 26 years, So it was an accident, but now it is a career. They have master’s programmes and AUTM is huge now.
Even just going through the conferences themselves, it is almost intimidating how many people are in the room at any given time. It is phenomenal. What made you leave Stanford then? Was it just time for a new challenge after all that time?
Yes. I was challenged the whole time I was there, which is why I stayed, and I liked working with Kathy Ku. She was great, somebody I could always learn from. My job changed every few years because she would give me something totally new to do. But yes, it was time for me to try something different. The opportunity came up at University of Utah and it seemed like a great one, so I went there.
What are some of the changes that you have seen in the industry over these past, almost three decades?
First of all, that it is a career now, but also the tech transfer offices now, most of them have a much broader scope. They bring in the startup function. They have more focus on economic development, issues beyond licensing, and some of them have things like the office of sponsored projects within their office. So, it is not what I call traditional type transfer.
It is not just getting a disclosure and trying to get a license. It is a much bigger picture. So, that is something that is very different. The other thing is, even if you keep the scope as traditional tech transfer, people are thinking much more creatively about how to be successful at that and trying to do different things. I mean, that is one of the things why AUTM is so important because they not only share best practices, but they also share new ideas. There is a lot of conversation and people come up with new ideas there. So, that is what has been interesting to me.
Is there something that Georgia Tech could learn from Stanford or Utah, or the other way around?
I think one of the things that is interesting is all three of them could understand nobody has a crystal ball and so coming from Stanford, I have given talks all over the world. I have given talks to countries that are just starting tech transfer offices, and they all say, how can we be like Stanford? And my response is, we have the same challenges you do.
The reason we are successful has to do with how long we have been in existence and the ecosystem. So, try to be successful with the resources you have instead of trying to recreate Stanford or Silicon Valley. Some of the things that Georgia Tech can learn from my experience at University of Utah. They have some very interesting ways of doing things.
Some of it is in the specific tech transfer office, but some of it is more in the startup side of things because there both offices work together and have the same director, and those are things that I am going to communicate to the director of Venture Labs, our startup group. So, there are quite a few, and different emphases on what you need to do as far as communicating with the inventors. That is certainly something we can learn from the University of Utah.
I was lucky enough to have Keith Marmer from Utah on the podcast a few months ago now and, I mean, that man thinks big picture more than most people I have come across. It is kind of amazing.
Absolutely, he does.
What is a noteworthy challenge that you have overcome that others could learn from?
One of the challenges I had, not just early in my career but throughout my career, is how to handle the relationship with faculty. I figured out fairly early on, you have to be very humble. Just be humble, ask questions that you think might be stupid. They are teachers, they want to teach you. I mean, mostly. That is something that has stayed with me throughout my career and even now running an office. The challenge was feeling secure in myself and the way I did my job. The solution was, be humble. You have to be willing to learn.
You handle a very broad range of technology. You cannot just stick in one area. You handle a large range of personalities, so you just have to pick that up. The other challenge is there is way too much to know. You just have to not feel too insecure or worried about it. Managing the caseloads, I used to think when I was at Stanford, I have got the cure for cancer sitting on my desk and I have not gotten to it yet. It is just managing all those different potential stressors.
That is quite interesting. I do not know if I have ever had anyone touch upon that, that you might have an invention sitting on your desk that quite possibly will save lives and you cannot let it get to you that there are so many other disclosures that you have to get through first before you can get through because there might be others in there that are going to save lives. That is quite interesting. Is there any specific advice that you would share with someone who is considering this career?
My biggest practical advice would be, try and get an internship somewhere, because to me that is a very highly rated characteristic for me. If somebody has gone to the effort to get an internship, if they sought it out, if they were picked for it, if they spent the time learning what tech transfer is, I would give that advice. If somebody is looking to maybe advance their career, they are very early on,
I cannot say enough about AUTM. They have instructional courses, instructional workshops at the annual meeting, but you get to network, and when you network there, my biggest recommendation is you take business cards, but actually contact those people after the meeting, because if you do not, you are never going to contact them. Just contact them and say, it was nice to meet you and whatever. Then the next time you are dealing with a licensing agreement, and you do not know what terms to ask, you can just contact them. We are not competing with each other. It is a very collegial group.
That is good advice. That reminds me, Ian McClure, the current AUTM chair, was at the PraxisAuril Conference where he talked about when he got started in tech transfer and he looked for a mentor that had the same life experiences as him and found Orin Herskowitz and they networked and now they are pretty good friends, and they help each other out. That is really good advice. Find someone who can help guide you and be a mentor.
Anybody would be really lucky to get Orin as a mentor. He is phenomenal.
Yes, sadly I have still not met him in person. We have spent a lot of time on Zoom and via emails, but I have still not managed to meet him in person. I saw him at the AUTM meeting a few years ago, but there was a room of 4,000 people, so I cannot really call that a meeting.
Exactly. That is a problem with the annual meeting.
It is, yes. Perhaps you are in a good position, considering you just started at the UTL, but if you had a magic wand, is there something that you would change about tech transfer?
Well, this will probably crack some people up, but, yes, more staff. The magic wand I would wave is that you had enough people that you could do justice to these inventions because you might have the cure for cancer on your desk. Maybe small offices, but I do not know of any medium to large offices where they have a manageable caseload.
So, I would also say upper administration needs to believe in the value of tech transfer, and not just look at the bottom line. Look at the impact this technology could make, and the whole point is getting something off the bench top and into the hands of someone who can use it. That is why I have been doing this for 28 years instead of going to industry, I believe in the mission of the university.
Is that something that is innate? Is that something that you just have to have or is that something that you can teach people?
I think you can teach people in the sense that when I came to Stanford, that is not what I thought I would do. I did not think the mission of the university was something that I would buy into so much, but I really believed that it did not need to be the bottom line.
It really grabbed me about the concept of taking something off the bench top, which would go nowhere, it would be published on. Taking something off the bench top and getting it developed and getting it for someone to use. Not just in the life sciences. Those are the obvious examples. But there are physical science examples too.
Perhaps more with life sciences in people’s minds now, obviously with the various Covid vaccines, but it can be anything. Gatorade out of Florida. It is a drink that most people probably would not have thought about it being a university innovation, but it was. Can you give me some examples of Georgia Tech startups?
Well, I mentioned two of them. Pindrop and Sila Nano. Those are two of the more successful startups, and one of those stayed in Atlanta and one of those left. Those are both physical science companies.
Especially with batteries, I imagine it is going to be a huge, huge market potential.
It is a big market, a lot of competition, but they would not go down the road if they did not believe it.
That is pretty much all the questions I had. Was there anything else that you want people to know about Georgia Tech, other than perhaps apply for jobs?
Please apply for jobs. I have all kinds of jobs open. It is not really necessarily for people to know about how you do tech transfer, but I really do want to thank all the tech transfer people out there who share their advice, share their wisdom, share their crazy ideas. We are not competitors. It is a very collegial atmosphere, but we would not be able to do what we do if we did not share all of that.
That is very true. Very good closing words. Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It has been a great pleasure.