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 live in front of a select group of guests in London.

This third panel features Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of the Technology Licensing Office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Anne Lane, chief executive of UCL Business and GUV Lifetime Achievement awardee, and Paul Van Dun, the general manager of Leuven Research and Development, the tech transfer office of KU Leuven.

Among the topics of discussion are the TenU’s Future Leaders Programme and how the pandemic-induced remote work proved a serious advantage in launching the initiative, why a return to the office – at least part-time – is inevitable for tech transfer practitioners and what the next five years might look like for the sector.



Thierry Heles: Andrea, can you give us an introduction to our last panel?

Andrea Taylor: The third panel today will be discussing developing future leaders. On that panel, we have Paul Van Dun from KU Leuven in Belgium. Anne Lane is also going to talk from UCL and Lesley Millar-Nicholson from MIT in the US.

Thierry Heles: Thank you. Let us hear what Anne, Lesley and Paul had to say.

Andrea Taylor: In our final section that we wanted to have some perspective on is around how we develop our future leaders. So, the next generation of leaders to take forward technology transfer and commercialization within universities, and I think developing the next generation of technology transfer professionals, I think we all recognize is key to securing that pipeline of new innovation and continuing to build that. That includes newcomers and talented mid-level professionals across the organization.

The TenU has recently just put in place a TenU Future Leadership Programme. It is just reaping the rewards of that as a platform for training and exchange and again, asking how we can identify the next generation of diverse leaders and foster those across the sector as a whole. So, to kick us off on that I wonder perhaps, Paul, you want to talk about the importance of developing such leadership, the inclusion and diversity and development of that underpins securing a pipeline of innovation.

Paul Van Dun: Happy to do so. Underpinning the importance of coaching and training is not probably the most difficult question. If you take a look at our mission, all of us, our job, our task is to bring research results into the market in some kind of a multi-step process.

First of all, making sure that you get early-stage, very early-stage developments to something that could have some potential and if so, then identify partners in the market to actually transfer it into the market. Now, this basically is the definition of innovation, applying new things in a practical way. That is basically what innovation is.

This is a multifaceted non-linear process where a lot of aspects come into play; science obviously, business, law, psychology, diplomacy, negotiation, tactics, et cetera, et cetera. So, it is a matter of actually making sure that all of our people involved get as much affinity in these elements as possible. There are a couple of elements that I think specifically for tech transfer are of importance. First of all, some of these things you can learn out of textbooks, but most of the aspects you will not be able to learn out of books.

You have to do training on the job, being exposed to cases, talking to peers, learning by doing, et cetera. So, this is already a very specific element. Second, as every profession, also tech transfer, in tech transfer, we have junior, less junior, senior people, all of them having their own role to play in this innovation chain in this innovation process. It goes without saying that training for each of these segments is important, but in tech transfer I think there is yet another layer on top of that. Namely, if you want to make sure that you track down, that you identify as much as new developments as possible, it is absolutely crucial that researchers and academics are disclosing them to you, are talking to you. And before they will do so I think there are two elements of importance. The first one is trust.

They need to trust you. This takes time. By the way, this is one of the reasons why some tech transfer offices where there is a little bit of a turnover in personnel struggle sometimes in getting the deal done because if people come and go all the time, academics will have problems in trusting the new faces every time. But the second element obviously is you need to deliver value. You need to deliver some added value to the academic who you are talking to.

So, for us, for tech transfer, if you are not knowledgeable, that even means that you will not get access to the pipeline of new things. The academics will not come to you again if after one or two talks, they have the feeling you are not delivering value, you do not know what you are talking about. Hence for us in the tech transfer segment, apart from the fact that it is important to know what you talk about, it is crucial to make sure that you get this continuous inflow of innovative ideas.

Another thing that I would like to touch upon is in our profession there has been a lot of talking about open innovation. I think the concept of open innovation is also something we should apply in our own profession. There are way more things to learn outside of our own organization than inside our own organization and we are not only talking about disciplines, we are also talking about regional differences.

TenU is one member from the continent, a couple of members from the US, members from the UK, while exposing people to these experiences in different regions that is also a matter of open innovation. I think that that is yet another layer in training, making sure that these different aspects, different experiences, different geographies, different habits are taken into account. As Karen already mentioned earlier today, just making sure that you learn from environments that are not your environments.

And lastly, I think, and this is a little bit of an open door probably, it is all also a continuous effort. This training, this coaching is not something that will stop at a given point in time. There will always be new business models, new financial models, new science. Take into account for example, the importance of AI today and compare that with, I do not know, seven, eight years ago. It is a world of difference. And on top of that, we all know that the people we employ, the people, our colleagues in the office these days in an era where the welfare of a region depends on its innovative capacity, most of the profiles, most of our colleagues are highly sought after.

So, it is unavoidable I would say that you have people going and coming to a certain extent. So, also for that reason, the need to continuously train your people at all levels is really crucial.

Andrea Taylor:  Perhaps Anne, before we talk about our program that we have developed, you want to touch on some of the challenges in developing that next generation of leaders, particularly as Paul’s begun highlighting, the brain drain, but also how we foster inclusivity and diversity among the next generation of leaders.

Anne Lane: I think it is a constant problem in tech transfer certainly because you have people who have very strong technical backgrounds and also got business experience, and as we have already said, they are very valuable.

Generally speaking, tech transfer offices and universities cannot pay the sorts of levels of salaries that might attract those people. So, I think it is really important to make sure you have an attractive career process.

So, I think in order to preserve that continuity, which is really important to preserve academic trust, you want to try and keep people in your system as long as you can, but also try and make sure you develop a proper career pathway so that people can come back into the system. My view always at UCL is when someone leaves to go somewhere else, you are losing your employee, but you are expanding your network.

I think that is really important. I think the other thing is, as Paul was saying, you need that range of experience and range of different experiences. I think that is why you need as much diversity within the industry as you can get, not just in say ethnic background, but also in diversity of thought and I think there is no one group that has a monopoly on talent. I think if you are not expanding that diversity to bring people from a range of different backgrounds into the industry, then you are really missing out. I do think, just looking around the room here, we are not the most diverse audience in the room, just looking at faces, and unless you see people like you, you are not going to move into that industry.

Then I think in terms of inclusion, once people are in the workspace, you need to make sure they have the opportunity to expand once they come into that workspace so that there are opportunities to develop their career, to get involved with different technologies and to do the multidisciplinary type of work and nurturing that is something that we really need to see to bring on the best next innovations. And I think Lesley will touch on that.

We are certainly doing some work with PraxisAuril in the leadership programme, but I think that is something that really underpins what we do and helps to overcome some of those barriers I think, and those challenges.

Andrea Taylor: So, perhaps that is a good point, Lesley Millar-Nicholson from MIT, to talk about the TenU Future Leaders Programme and how that builds on what else has already been delivered and tackles some of that.

Lesley Millar-Nicholson: Yes, thanks, Andrea. Pleasure to be here. Thank you. So, this topic is very close to my heart. I got into tech transfer through the intern program at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign when I did not know what tech transfer was. And quite frankly, it has taken me another 10 years to begin to know what it is, and here I am at MIT.

But the Future Leaders Programme, really, if we want to take a moment and go, If there is one good thing out of covid, what was it? It was the fact that we could take advantage of the fact that we have a whole load of people who were available to traverse the world virtually and engage without actually incurring cost. And for some people giving them an opportunity that they might not otherwise have had, whether single parents or family commitments would never have allowed a one-week sojourn to another part of the world to learn about another tech transfer office and so the leadership of Ananay, our policy advisor at TenU, we began to contemplate, well, what can we do in this moment to take advantage of that?

To begin with, we were thinking physical program, and then it became apparent that was not going to be possible. So, we ended up with, and this is something that we do not claim ownership of that only TenU can do, we want to share the things that have worked and share the things that have not worked and say, go do it, learn from what we are doing.

But the idea was that not only TenU universities could participate, but we also reached out to some others, both in the US and in the UK, and we ended up with a cohort of 12 individuals from 12 universities, and it was competitive.

So, we asked each of the university’s directors to select three to four individuals that they thought could benefit from the opportunity, and I will tell you what the opportunity was in a second, and to participate for a period of four months where they would be doing co-creation of content. It was not going to be, we are going to teach you everything about tech transfer. I think the beautiful thing about it was the intention was to learn from each other and to claim we are just TenU, we are a group of universities with very different experiences, and we do not know it all and we do not all have it right, even Stanford, MIT, Columbia, we do not have it right. Let me tell you that right now, and we do not do it all well.

So, we would love to hear from others. But the idea was to get these individuals together in a cohort mechanism so that they would become this group of 12, and over a course of 16 weeks I think it was, four months, with a couple of sessions that was introductory, a consultant came in and did some leadership, but they would then be asked to create the content.

Like, if you are from, Illinois was one of the universities, what would you like to talk about? What would you like to teach others? What do you think you do well that others could learn from? And if I remember correctly, they chose the intern program that was one of the first in the US, to which I claim to be an alum, to talk about what has worked with it, how they did it, how they funded it.

Then that went on that Columbia, CMU, Edinburgh, others began to say, we think we do this well. It was not just the participants; it was people within the office were asked to participate as well.

So, we will come to, what are the goals of this virtual staff exchange let us call it? Well, it was about developing leadership skills. It was about developing networks. It was about learning more about tech transfer, but it was not tech transfer 101. We are going to teach you what it is like to work with an inventor. We might teach you some tools that we use in one university about how you engage better with faculty, or how do you deal with DEI issues and DEI, diversity equity, inclusion initiatives, what can we learn from that?

Through that 16 weeks or so, the idea was that these people would begin to work together as a team. We really wanted it to be called a cohort because when you have that identity, you refer back. It is like I graduated in year whatever, and part of that university class of 2002, that ages me, or whatever it was. We wanted people to feel the same and to walk away with the experience of, I know how Columbia does that and not just be part of TenU and say, well, you got to be part of that to be able to call up Lesley at MIT, actually I know someone at the MIT tech transfer office or Stanford or Leaven or wherever. So, that was the intention of it.

And again, the idea was really pushing for collaboration, leadership, engagement and decision making and how to respond to issues within an office, how to lead change within an office. We have always done it that way, is something I hear in my office. How do you actually get people to think differently without scaring the bejesus out them? This has to come, not only from leadership, because if it comes from leadership, it is like the mandate from up above.

Actually, what you want is change from the ground. So, the idea is, again, as you build future leaders, that they feel empowered, they feel able, and that they are given the tools to drive those conversations that are sometimes left to the directors or the management team or the whomevers and whatevers that seem to have earned their stripes. So, that was the intention, and we hope, truly hope, that folks do not go. Ah, but we are doing that and you are just trying to stomp all over it.

We are like, ah, this was an opportunity. My life is based on opportunistic serendipitous moments. Trust me, I could write a book about it. That is all we are trying to do, creating serendipity, ensuring there are opportunities and allowing young people in mid-level, or even in my view, junior level tech transfer who never might otherwise get an opportunity to travel to uni name some faraway place to learn about how it is done or has been done or is done there is that they can join that.

They can jump on that train and enjoy the journey.

Andrea Taylor: What is next for the programme, Lesley? And how will success be measured?

Lesley Millar-Nicholson: Well, I do not know, would just be a LinkedIn group that everybody wants to follow, be a good success measure? I do not know. Well, we need to think about what we can do when the world opens up a bit.

I do not think we can beat the fact that you can do this virtually, I will say at low transaction cost and not every office has the funds to afford to send somebody for a week someplace. So that is one thing. We may introduce a one-week residential programme. We may find ways to find funding for those that are in underrepresented groups and from underrepresented universities quite frankly, to see whether or not we can supplement that. I think trying to work out ways.

I have always thought that prior year’s interns lead the next year’s group, the same could apply, prior year’s cohort members can begin to have input into the new program to learn from because we are only as good as the next transaction we do. It is not the stuff in the past. It is like, what did we learn from that? So, our hope is that it will continue obviously to grow.

That there will be more opportunities for people beyond TenU, so it is not just seen as a TenU thing, but that we are basing this on and we have included it in our proposals for continuing the programme and for funding to demonstrate that we are amplifying tech transfer leadership across more than just the TenU group.

Andrea Taylor: Just before I bring in the public, I wonder if we could reflect. We were talking about when you develop leadership, the power of dynamic leadership and what that can do in this industry. And you were making some good points from the New York perspective. I wonder if you would like to comment on your perspective of what makes good leadership and the impact that that can have.

Euan Robertson: Yes. Look, I think it is showing up and being engaged and I think one or two leaders within a particular group or sector can make a tremendous difference. I agree with Lesley that it does not need to be a top-down thing, that leadership can also come from those who are earlier in their career, and we did a bunch of programs when I was at EDC to foster and mentor that type of model where you are bringing along the next generation.

One of the things that we did was to actually pair up for mentoring early-stage entrepreneurs with experienced business leaders, so that both could learn from one another. But I think in the realm of public policy, having a leader like mayor Bloomberg, who was engaged, or even within the university community.

I was mentioning earlier, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who is now the Stanford president, when he was leading Rockefeller and we were trying to look at how we grow the commercial life sciences sector in New York city made a tremendous difference through his leadership because by investing his time and bringing his networks to the table, we were able to convene a much richer set of dialogues. He was able to bring not only his peers from the other academic medical centres, but also his connections from his time in industry, people from the venture capital world. I do not know that we would have had the same quality of people around the table and the same type of engagement if he had not stepped up.

Andrea Taylor: Any questions from the audience picking up on what we have heard.

Charles Price: Thanks. Charles Price again from BEIS. I wanted to build on comments from the RCA about the type of skills and leadership we need to bring in more of an arts dynamic here. I also heard comments from the floor about how to be credible in this field, you need to have real tech understanding of the field, you probably need a PhD, often that comes alongside with an MBA. I just wondered if there is more that can be done to bring people with arts and an arts background into the tech transfer sector.

Andrea Taylor: Lesley.

Lesley Millar-Nicholson: I guess some people think the ideal tech transfer person has all of those qualifications, science, law, business. I trained as a phys ed teacher. I have no science background. I am certainly not a lawyer, maybe I would BS with the best of them, but there is something about looking beyond the qualification and finding the right fit of the person for the job you are seeking.

Now, I will say that in certain roles, you absolutely need someone that can translate the science into the business opportunity and then somebody who is a good negotiator. But Orin I think has, I do not know if it is a PhD or a master’s degree in English. So, what I do not want to do is that we preclude great people from getting into the field because they do not have a particular qualification that we think is needed. You have to look at the whole person and I perhaps was lucky that they were really short on staff when they hired me, and semiconductor manufacturing was never my thing, but I managed to get through it and then they went, oh, let us elevate her because she is no good at that, and we will give her a director job. It happens to the best of them.

But I think we have to be careful. I agree, certainly at MIT, it is really hard to have a conversation with a Bob Langer or Dan Anderson unless you really understand the science they are talking about, but there are absolutely other roles in tech transfer that do not need that level of science. In fact, sometimes it is a burden and that actually getting it going down rabbit holes in a way that is like, that is good enough, we need to move on and you need to think about the business proposition.

Andrea Taylor: Any other questions?

Angela Kukula: Thanks. Angela Kukula, Institute of Cancer Research. In a world where lots of people now want to work remotely and particularly our more established staff want to spend some of their time working from home, how do you make sure that you still have the experience in the office to train up those more junior people?

Andrea Taylor: Paul, do you want to take that first?

Paul Van Dun: Personally, I think that one always says tech transfer is a contact sport. I think everybody says, looking back during covid 18 months, two years, we managed well and things went on, et cetera. What I see is that not being in the office, not meeting the researchers frequently, probably there is a hidden cost that we do not see today.

A lot of missed opportunities. The talks at the coffee corner where you say, well, I have talked to a researcher, ABC, and he is dealing with that. Oh, I have talked to another one and he is these kind of things, you completely miss out. So, personally I think that not only for training purposes, but for doing our job properly, we need to have face to face contact to a minimum level.

Angela Kukula: Yes, I was going to say, we were talking this morning about actually how all of us, certainly all the UK offices, our number of IDFs have gone down, so that the two years where we have already got those established relationships, we could carry those on virtually, but it is definitely the new ones and the new things coming through that you have to be there.

People have to know where you are. You have to be present for some of the time.

Andrea Taylor: And I think we all three remarked, it is okay to continue virtually with well-established relationships, perhaps with academics that you have a good rapport with, but the nature of universities is the turnover of new staff, new academics coming in and building that relationship, getting to know their science and what they do virtually is quite challenging.

Lesley, did you want to answer?

Lesley Millar-Nicholson: Yes, I do want to, I think that is a great question and I think we are only just discovering exactly what we lost in terms of, training was done, onboarding was done, we hired lots of staff in the last two years, and we are beginning to see the holes because of the training. It is not that training did not occur, it is just that moment in the corridor to follow up on something.

So, people say, It is great, you can do zoom training and it is recorded and you could go back to it. Well, really? How many times do you go back to it? So, in terms of solutions, what we are doing is all of our, so we have 55 staff and within that the categorization, there is IP, finance, marketing, licensing, operations, et cetera and within each of the jobs, not the person, but the jobs are categorized as, they will say, as this one can be fully remote.

Even if it is fully remote, you need to come in for X number of days to be trained. For the ones that are not fully remote then the expectation is you are absolutely in on those days for this number of, whether it is months or weeks or whatever, before you get into your full wholesale two days, three days a week.

But I think we are just all going to have to adapt. And maybe the exception reporting, the discovering maybe that training was not done as well, needs to be ramped up, is that we are looking for more of where the gaps might occur, because it is only now as people are leaving and they were hired in the last year and we are going, oops, that should have been something that good training caught. So, I think it is a great question and one we need to keep our eyes on.

Euan Robertson: And I think even for the science and the research itself. So, I will talk a little about my current role. I work for the Simons Foundation, which is a philanthropy that funds mathematical and computational science, but we also have an in-house research institute that is post doc and up.

The feedback that we have had from our senior scientists is, pursuing existing research projects, all fine, starting new things and having those spontaneous interactions, we are very focused on interdisciplinary work, we are very focused on convening, we are very focused on those unstructured interactions that happen in a space between researchers and for the period of time where we were more extensively working remotely, that was incredibly challenging, and our scientists felt a huge loss. So, we have been pretty aggressive about bringing people back.

We currently have all our staff in the office four days a week, because it is part of the DNA of who we are as an organization that we do not think you can successfully replicate that in a remote environment. So, that sort of initiation of new ideas I think is incredibly hard to generate remotely. Carrying through execution of things that were already started, there are some great tools for that remotely.

Andrea Taylor: We are looking ahead obviously for the next five years for the TenU. So how either the skills needs might change or indeed how we think commercialisation may change over the next five years. Perhaps I can invite some final perspectives on that from our US colleagues.

Perhaps Lesley, what are your thoughts on the next five years? Will we need different people? Are we going to be seeing new skills that we need, or is it developing along a trajectory that we have started with this mix of skill sets and perhaps blended working approach as well?

Lesley Millar-Nicholson: Wow. That is a big question. I think in tech transfer generally, we have always had to have the ability to flex and change according to political themes, what is going on in society. Everybody has had to adapt to a pandemic, and I think this is a big non-answer, but I think we have to continue to do that and quite frankly, who knows what the futures bring, certainly in the US. God, 2024 is going to be upon us and who the heck knows what is going to be happening in the US at that time. But we do know, climate challenge, AI and healthcare, all of the things that are currently in the pipeline are going to just keep becoming more prevalent.

There are going to be more engagements and collaborations with industry as industry becomes more interested in the outputs of research as different themes come. In the US, there is a real push towards US manufacturing. So again, there is focus on that. Risk, I will call it risk enforcement, but there is sensitivity towards funding from particular countries is a big thing.

So, data security, all of those things. But again, to the point that you were making Tony, about in some cases tech transfer offices do it all and in other cases, they do not. These are things that you have to rely on the community around you. And the question for us all often is, do you have that in the community around you, even if you are not doing it, and how do you leverage that when you find it or when somebody builds it or when you build it?

That is about relationships and being open and building those relationships as tech transfer offices or directors or whatever role you are in is really important. So, as I said, a big non-answer, but the best I could do.

Andrea Taylor: I think we have had some good coverage of our topics. I want to just wrap the session up by thanking the panel members for taking the time to answer so fully and provide a great perspective on the topics that we have covered and also to the participants here for engaging in questions.

I think we are around still for a while longer here for networking and encourage to engage, but it just leaves me to thank the panel and public participants for the session. Thanks 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).