left to right: Lesley Millar-Nicholson, Paul Van Dun, Anne Lane, Andrew Wilkinson, Simon Hepworth, Karin Immergluck, Diarmuid O’Brien, Euan Robertson and Andrea Taylor

We have partnered TenU, the collaboration between the tech transfer offices of University of Cambridge, Columbia University, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, KU Leuven, University of Manchester, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Oxford, Stanford University and University College London to bring you three panels recorded for the podcast live in front of a select group of guests in London last month.

The first panel features Euan Robertson, chief operating officer of Simons Foundation, Karin Immergluck, executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford University, and Diarmuid O’Brien, chief executive of University of Cambridge’s tech transfer arm Cambridge Enterprise.

The panel discusses how universities can better celebrate innovation, what the differences in that regard are between the US and Europe, and how important it is to have the backing of university leadership to really make a difference.


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Thierry Heles: Andrea, welcome. Can you just give us an overview of what TenU is?

Andrea Taylor: Yes. TenU is really the shorthand name for the ambitious transatlantic collaboration that brings together the leading tech transfer offices from universities across America, the UK and Europe to leverage cutting edge research to tackle the global challenges. The members of the TenU, the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Manchester, University College London, and Imperial College London in the UK, KU Leuven from Belgium and from the US, the universities of Columbia, MIT, and Stanford, and that makes up the TenU.

Thierry Heles: Brilliant. Can you give us a quick introduction to the first panel?

Andrea Taylor: The first panel is going to be talking about how we celebrate university innovation and how the TenU is seeking to really highlight the innovation that is part of the universities. Speaking in that panel, we have a guest of the TenU, Euan Robertson, who is the CEO of the Simons Foundation, but has also worked in New York under mayor Bloomberg developing its economic infrastructure. We then have Karin Immergluck who is from Stanford University and Diarmuid O’Brien who is head of Cambridge Enterprise, the commercial arm of Cambridge University.

Thierry Heles: Thanks, Andrea. Let’s hear their insights.

Andrea Taylor: So, Euan, perhaps you can tell us a little bit from your experience about what success and celebrating success means in New York and how that is underpinned some of the work that you have been involved in.

Euan Robertson: Sure. Thanks very much everyone. It is nice to be here. So, I started this journey professionally at least back in 2008, when I joined the Bloomberg administration in an economic development role. I was telling some of my colleagues earlier that my first day on the job actually with the economic development corporation was September 15, 2008, which was the morning the markets opened after Lehman filed on the Sunday night. Really what we did as a city, in conjunction with the mayor and the deputy mayor, was start to think about the future of the city’s economy.

One of the things that we honed in on pretty fast was that all of the major industry sectors in New York, whether that was financial services, media, tourism, even healthcare, were going to be disrupted by technology and innovation and that within that space, therefore in order for New York to maintain competitiveness and continue to grow in what was sure to be a very disrupted and challenging time because of what was happening with the global markets, we really needed to double down on and understand that ecosystem of innovation and technology and technology transfer. Again, pretty fast we realized that one of the major assets that we had as a city was the conglomeration of top tier universities and academic medical centres.

So, we started to very intentionally engage with the leadership of each of those institutions. A lot of what we were doing in the initial phases was really just convening frankly conversations like this. So, we would bring together senior people from the universities, business leaders from each of the sectors successively, venture capitalists and private equity people and angel funders, entrepreneurs, and have a set of facilitated conversations about the particular sector that was under discussion, what the role of each of those entities in the ecosystem was.

Then we would use that to do some targeted programs, but also frankly to celebrate some successes and to put out reports, do joint venturing in the sense of look for collaborations between in some cases, the city government, the university, and a private sector partner. A lot of it was about keeping that momentum and keeping that drumbeat going to change the perception, in some senses change the self-perception of the city. I think people had previously, if they thought of New York, they certainly thought of capital markets, but maybe they thought of the Nasdaq. In terms of technology companies, it is where you go when you want to IPO. It is not necessarily a place that was seen to be a thriving ecosystem within the venture space or within the early-stage seed funding community.

So, part of it was about changing that narrative and changing that perception and self-perception. Then some more tangible things around actually doing programs to make that a reality. I have to say that a big factor in this was showing up. By that, I mean also including the mayor.

Working for a mayor at that time, who was a business leader, who understood the importance of the partnership between government policy makers and the private sector and who was respected largely by people in the private sector made a tremendous difference, but being able to create that narrative jointly.

Andrea Taylor: I would like to now bring in Karin Immergluck from Stanford University to give us your perspective on the successes we see in the US, but then across the whole TenU, Karin.

Karin Immergluck: Yes, absolutely. So, I am Karin from Stanford. Let us start with the pandemic. One of the first things that actually the TenU discussed as a group was, what are you guys doing to address COVID at your universities? How is your tech transfer office involved? It was a really interesting discussion. I know Orin Herskowitz, our colleague from Columbia who could not be here unfortunately, told a very compelling story about how they really wanted to create protective equipment and their faculty came up with these new ideas for how to design them, but they did not know how to get them manufactured quickly enough, and the tech transfer office just jumped in.

Even though that is not really their mandate, they jumped in and started talking to different companies and trying to help their scientists figure out, how do I actually get these into distribution? So, there were plenty of success stories to celebrate. Of course, the vaccine, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, is a clear example. So, how did each of the individual universities celebrate this as well? At Stanford, we created a separate webpage, for all of our covid related technologies to really help everyone understand that these are ways that maybe we can help address the pandemic, but also making it easier for companies to access.

Again, coming back to the TenU, I come from Stanford and I think we have a long history of success and that is great. Our president, our current university president, has made it very clear to everyone on the campus, you cannot rest on your laurels.

You can never think you are number one, because once you think that you are not going to try hard enough, so you always have to keep trying harder. And, you know, within the context of TenU, it really gives a smaller forum, but with peer institutions to compare notes, to think about, oh, they really do it a lot differently than we do, how can I apply that knowledge to what we are doing, but again, within a very different context? I think we celebrate each other’s successes quite a bit and are quite active in comparing notes.

Andrea Taylor:  I would like to bring in Diarmuid O’Brien, head of Cambridge Enterprises to maybe reflect on the challenges in sustaining the narrative of success and how we can amplify that.

Diarmuid O’Brien: Thank you. Nice to be here and to speak to everyone. I think the primary context for that is why do we need to do the celebrate success? I think from my perspective, it is about using that success to reinforce the culture we want to create within our institutions, then beyond that, the kind of interface we want to create with the venture community, with industry, and of course, with government.

So, from my perspective, when you think about how you do might sustain and amplify this, I think you have to think about it in three different strands. There is the first strand, which is about how you enhance the relationship with the PI community and make them feel that the success that they have had and achieved through commercialisation is one that they have done in partnership with the tech transfer office and with the commercialization units.

I think it is really important that commercialization units move away from being viewed as a kind of regulator of the system or the patent office and get perceived as a partner in delivering value for the PIs and for the universities. So, simple things in my mind, like having coffee mornings for those who have filed invention disclosures, having recognition events for those who have done licenses, things that actually bring people together in a collective way to share the good news of what has happened is really important. I think the second layer around sustaining this idea of success is then at an institutional level.

How do you get the university leadership to buy into, this is a critical third strand of what universities are about on top of, of course, the core education and research missions. I think that comes back to again mechanisms through which faculty and indeed those within the TTO are recognized for the achievements that have come about and I think this definitely comes back to improved storytelling really. We have seen it with the covid example. I think it is very clear. I spoke to Phil Clare at Oxford, and I think he was saying at one point during the pandemic, Oxford was being mentioned in the press some ridiculous amount of times every day, mainly driven by the vaccine.

That is what you want to see, this idea of connectivity between research and outcome and public awareness. But another great example of that would be, I think maybe it was about seven or eight years ago, whenever the Start-up Nation book came out around Israel, but they really began to define Israel’s perception as a startup country and as a country committed to entrepreneurship and innovation. So, this idea of building narrative at an institutional level that connects the commercialization agenda with the overall mission of the organisation, I think it is going to be really critical around that sustaining success piece.

Then the final piece is how you sustain that with government. I think that is where you move to a different kind of storytelling where you really try to get an integrated output across the sector that really begins to resonate at a political level, and that obviously comes back to economic indicators, which could be the amount of venture capital going into the sector, the amount of jobs created in the sector, the amount of international investment that has come into the country on the back of those companies, and of course the social impacts that come there.

So, I think if you take a stratified approach from a human level, the PI, through an institutional level, to a government level, you can create a framework through which you can begin to amplify, and I think focus on building that success story narrative.

Andrea Taylor: Just before we open this to the floor, one of the benefits of having this group is the perspective that we can get from that transatlantic crosstalk. So, I wonder if I can just ask you to comment on perhaps the perceived differences in celebrating successes between the US and UK and Europe. Perhaps somewhat stereotypically, we think of the US shouting and being proud of success and the UK and us in Europe being a little bit more humble.

Is that too crude or is that the case? If so, what can we learn from our friends in the US?  So perhaps Euan, I can ask you to initially comment on that perspective.

Euan Robertson: Sure. As you may guess from my accent, I was born and raised in Brooklyn. No, I am originally from Glasgow and spent a long time in London. So, I have a bit of the intercultural perspective and I think it is true that generally culturally, certainly new Yorkers are not shy about celebrating their own success or boasting. There does tend to be, I think, in the UK and some other places, I spent some time in Canada and it is the same there, this reticence or reluctance to be seen to praise yourself or be boastful.

There is generally a cultural abreaction to that, but I think it is an important thing. There is a line to walk there. You have to have substance. There has to be something substantive to talk about, but if you have got the substance then why not make people aware of the great things that are happening and part of it also picking up on what Diarmuid is saying, I think it is partly, also at least from my perspective in the work I was doing, about creating a common language and a common frame of reference. So, we were bringing together policy makers, investors, entrepreneurs, university, people, and really through those conversations in those convenings starting to develop a sense of an ecosystem in a community and the language in which to talk about that and describe that.

That then makes it easier to celebrate successes because everyone understands the framework that you are working in and has the same vernacular.

Andrea Taylor: Karin.

Karin Immergluck: Interesting that you would say that. I was just thinking, this was years ago actually, I was waiting in the security line at the Oakland airport, Oakland is across the bay from San Francisco, and while I was waiting in the line, I realized there was this immense banner right where everyone who was waiting there in line could see, and it was a University of California banner that said your university of California research has resulted in I do not know, I forget what the numbers were, but X patents, X new drugs helping patients, X products on the market for societal impact.

I remember looking at that thinking, wow, that is in the airport. So, yes, we do tend to promote that a lot more. Another thing I want to point out is, for example at Stanford, we are about to launch our life science incubator in the research park. Our president will be speaking at that. Our School of Medicine Dean will be speaking at that. We recently closed a relationship with an investor company, an unusual one.

Again, there was a launch. Our president spoke, the Dean of the School of Medicine spoke. So, it shows that the leadership of the university is celebrating these successes as well as the faculty and our office.

Andrea Taylor: Diarmuid, perhaps you want to finally reflect. Do you think there are things to learn in the UK and Europe? Are our leadership behind us celebrating success or is there a greater role for them?

Diarmuid O’Brien: I do think that point of institutional leadership celebrating is very important. The truth is that the performance in the UK, because I have just come here from Ireland, I would look in at the UK and see it as no question about it, a leader in the space and the track record of the institutions in delivering the space is really very significant.

So, there is visibility about that. I think there is also a truth that we have a wonderful capacity to begin to undermine that a little bit and to knock at it as opposed to elevate it. So, I think that comes at a political level, at an institutional level. I think there is a failure to understand that, let us call it, in every leading institution.

There are those who are detractors of this agenda and those who are supporters, as I presume even in the US, but we seem to let the detractor’s voice become overly listened to in this environment and I think it is really important we recognise and hear the positive stories too. I think institutional support from the top can really help with that and make this a valid third agenda for the university sector.

Andrea Taylor: Well, perhaps with that, I can maybe open to our audience and invite you. Do you have any perspectives on how in the UK we engage the sector of which you are part to help with celebrating the success or what role you feel you can play, or we can help with that? Does anyone have any perspectives that they would like to bring?

Maxine Ficarra: Hello, I am Maxine Ficarra, chief exec at PraxisAuril. I just wanted to reference the fact that we started almost 20 years ago with a US UK partnership actually, so it is interesting to have come full circle. From my perspective, having the TenU as this PR powerhouse that can support the things that we are trying to do is hugely valuable. We can do things at a level where we are trying to celebrate the successes of the key practitioners who are involved in the UK. There are many brilliant stories to tell, but it is what audience we can reach. So, I think that is where the TenU, you can help.

Andrea Taylor: Perhaps one of you want to comment on that? I think it is really important that we are keen, that we build on that wider community. I think Praxis is a great example of already joining up that community and how we can leverage some of our experience through organizations such as Praxis. Karin, do you want to comment?

Karin Immergluck: One example of some of the results of this exchange are in the context of working with venture capitalists and Orin, again my colleague from Columbia who is not here, he organized a round table in the US between I think six or seven US universities and half a dozen venture capitalists. It was a round table to really talk about some of the issues we go through all the time when we are trying to do deals with each other. How do we resolve this?

There were a couple of areas where we basically agreed to disagree and that it probably depends on a case-by-case basis, but on points like basics around the structure of a license. What range should equity be? What range should the royalties be? This was all life science focused, I should mention. But, we did come up with agreement and we also developed a set of guidelines around the hows. How should we work together?

What are some guidelines to make that process more efficient and smooth? So, it was really successful. You can find the results of that online, I think VC TTO round table, if you Google that. Now I understand that the UK is doing the same thing between their universities and the local venture community. So, this is an example of how we can learn from each other and compare best practices and benefit.

Andrea Taylor: Any other questions?

Tony Hickson: Tony Hickson, Cancer Research UK. I guess it is really interesting to see how the UK offices of tech trans offices have evolved. You mentioned mandates and going beyond your mandate, and that mandate has gradually expanded over time. It is got wider and wider. I guess because we are stepping in, it is not happening.

So, we are stepping into that void and helping to create incubators and accelerators and venture funds and student entrepreneurship schemes, and all the things that the tech transfer office is now doing for the university, which is great.

I guess my question is: is that where it ends, do we just forever expand as organisations, or is success that actually the ecosystem functions so well that this all happens? Academics naturally bump into VCs, naturally find space. And actually, success would be going back to just being a patent office to your point there. It would be the opposite because the ecosystem was functioning so well.

Andrea Taylor: Diarmuid, maybe you want to give some perspective from Cambridge?

Diarmuid O’Brien: I think that is interesting because we had meetings this morning and Karin and Lesley were talking about how in Stanford and MIT, the outreach to faculty is not a big part of what they do. There is a cultural sophistication amongst the faculty that they understand if they have an invention disclosure or an opportunity for commercialization, where to go and how they might begin to deliver that.

So, I think there is some truth to that, Tony, which says that if we really got things to that kind of super mature stage, the need to fill gaps all the time may well reduce a little bit.

Although having said that, the kind of counterpoint from those institutions was that one, the volume of stuff coming in is super high, but also the amount of entrepreneurial activity that is happening in those institutions, although not driven through the TTO, is still very present. I think that will be the real next step, which will be, there may be an understanding of the kind of role the TTO plays for the institution, which results in let us call it that importance and outreach.

But I think there is a whole other layer then about, can you get the institutional culture and the entrepreneurial commitment from across the institution so that you begin to see other things and other services you provide been taking on elsewhere? I suspect because we have been engineered differently now for the TTOs to be more central in the providing of those services that we will never escape the need to continue to do that.

So, I think it will continue to evolve is the point. And I think you are right. I think success probably is having less focus on that early-stage idea identification that is now culturally coming from the PIs themselves and focusing a little bit more on the other pieces.

Andrea Taylor: We will take one more question before we move on.

Charles Price: Thank you very much. I am Charles Price. I am from BEIS. I had a question about the New York experience Euan. It is really great you have come, thank you. When you used the term tech transfer with mayor Bloomberg, was that something that he immediately got, or was it something that you needed to explain?

People know what venture capital is. They know what entrepreneurs are, startups are. But did he get the word tech transfer straight away? Then the follow-on question I had for you was when we think about UK cities, but London in particular, is there a kind of role do you think for London to be thinking along the same lines as what you are doing in New York?

Euan Robertson: I think definitely the mayor and also the deputy mayor and some of the other senior staff at City Hall, because of their business backgrounds and also because of their other engagements with the university sector and the mayor is a huge philanthropic funder of various universities, had a pretty good understanding of the role that universities play in helping to drive technology and innovation.

One subset of that being the transfer of specific technologies out of the university into the market, but by no means that that is the only role. In fact, one of the major projects that I worked on under the Bloomberg administration was more about a talent supply pipeline and creating higher quality and higher volumes of technology talent coming out of the university system. But I think they got it without too much explanation.

I think there is a role in this kind of thing for municipal government, particularly in large cities, like London, where you have quite a complicated ecosystem and there can be a valuable role for government and policymakers just to provide some connective tissue because when you operate at the kind of scale of a city like New York or London, it is often difficult sometimes for these different groups to naturally find one another and I think that is a useful role that municipal governments can play. In the US, state government plays some of this role as well.

Then there is a big role for federal policy making more around infrastructure and regulatory environment and that kind of thing. But cities have to be quite practical in some senses and can engage with specific leaders or groups, whether that is entrepreneurs, investors, established companies. So, I could definitely see that potentially being a role for them.

Charles Price: Thank you very much.

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).