Keys to Success
Johns Hopkins’ invention disclosures more than doubled from about 200 just five years ago. The School of Medicine generated 86% of those disclosures. Johns Hopkins attributes its success to changes in the university’s tech transfer effort. “We generated additional support so we could expand the office and get the right number of people in here and the right kind of people in here,” Wesley D. Blakeslee, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer Office, told GEN.
“We put in really good data management systems, so where we used to distribute information once a year, sporadically, now all of our distributions are made quarterly, and they’re usually completed by the end of the first month following the close of the quarter.”
Johns Hopkins also re-fashioned its tech transfer office along business lines: “We understand that our business is customer service to our faculty members inside and customer service to our licensing partners outside,” Blakeslee added. “If we do a good job with that, then we’ll have success.”
UT also made some changes to its tech transfer operations that resulted in the successes seen with Reata, a company that was spun out in 2002. The firm has already collected $950 million from Abbott in licensing deals for its antioxidant inflammation modulators.
“We hired a UT alum entrepreneur [CEO Warren Huff] who had started a venture and was successful and wanted to come back to Texas,” Bryan Allinson, UT’s executive director for technology commercialization, told GEN. “Over about three to four years, he interacted very closely with the angel community within Texas and was able to raise about $200 million in investment funding into the company.”
Looking at the last fiscal year, Northwestern reported a 6.4% year-over-year increase in licensing income to $191.3 million, while NYU’s licensing income came in at $142.1 million, 20% lower, reflecting a one-time payment made in 2010 without which the university would have finished 2011 with a roughly 7% gain. Columbia said FY 2011 figures had yet to be finalized; Sloan-Kettering could not furnish a 2011 figure or confirm the published 2010 figure, citing an internal audit, while City of Hope did not answer GEN requests for information.
The income ups and downs of top-level tech transfer reflects an increasingly challenging environment for commercializing life science technologies, said Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures and the university’s vp for intellectual property & technology transfer.
“Both venture investors and pharma companies are naturally wary of the long timeframes and significant investments required to bring new biopharma products to market and therefore are looking for products with as much validation as possible,” Herskowitz told GEN.
Herskowitz said Columbia has addressed these challenges in several ways: “Providing small internal grants to validate or develop prototypes for particularly promising technologies; leveraging SBIR grants or local programs like the NYC Investment Fund’s Bioaccelerate Awards; and collaborating with pharma companies via ongoing sponsored research to derisk inventions of interest. Meanwhile, we have continued to see significant growth in other areas that leverage a blend of engineering and biomedical approaches, such as healthcare IT, medical devices, robotic surgery, etc.,” Herskowitz added.
Success may be harder to replicate in coming years as academic budgets get scaled back and U.S. startups scramble to secure capital. Additionally, they then must navigate both regulatory hurdles and increased competition from overseas startups in countries with less red tape and more money to spend on developing drugs.