The best of both worlds: careers in tech transfer
Have you heard of the Bayh–Dole Act of 1980? No? Me neither until recently, but it actually is hugely important for the connection between academia and industry. This act essentially paved the way for universities and research programs to commercialize and profit from their federally funded research.
Why is this important? Over $40 billion of federal money is spent annually on funding basic scientific research, and this research leads to scientific discoveries important for human health. Basic science taught us that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to inhibit mild pain and reduce fever and swelling. Not sure what those are? That’s because you’re not going to your local university to purchase these useful drugs. You’d probably recognize their common name, aspirin, on the shelves of your local grocery store though.
So how did this discovery get from the lab bench to your shelves? That’s where technology commercialization comes in. As scientific ideas and technologies are being developed, the researchers who work on them can patent them. A patent can be licensed to other companies for use or used to create new startup companies or other ventures. This helps accelerate federally funded academic research toward the medical and general consumer markets, oftentimes through privately funded industrial partners.
Technology-transfer offices work with academic laboratories and outside industrial partners to register and maintain intellectual properties and patents. They can help build relationships and foster deals that are mutually beneficial for the researcher and industry partner, thus helping bring science to the market on a scale and timetable that academic labs cannot offer alone. Scientific discovery depends on industry to get to market.
If you’re passionate about academic research but are interested in industry, technology transfer and commercialization may be the career for you. Below we discuss some entry point jobs for each career stage.
While there are many different ways to end up in tech transfer and everyone takes a different path, here’s some advice if you:
…are still in school or a postdoc
If you’re already working toward an advanced degree or are in an academic lab, you should check with your school’s technology-transfer office (assuming they have one — if they don’t, look for nearby universities). Reach out and ask if they have any internship opportunities. Many universities have developed formal internships for graduate students and postdocs, but, even if they haven’t, you may be able to get insight into their job and even get firsthand experience. Some research institutions also offer postdoctoral or post-master’s fellowships in tech transfer, so start looking for those if you think this is the career path for you. The National Institutes of Health has several such opportunities, such as this one through the National Cancer Institute. If you want to get involved in the international market, LifeArc in London has opened applications for its technology-transfer fellowship.
…just graduated or are looking to change careers
Tech transfer offices heavily rely on experts to evaluate patent or licensing proposals. You are that expert — you’ve already spent years becoming a specialist in your area of research and its associated techniques and instrumentation. Start looking for positions in licensing, either as an assistant or an associate. In these roles, you will be working with both the researcher behind the technology and industry partners to evaluate the technology and negotiate terms of partnership. Salaries generally start around $55,000 a year and can reach over $110,000 for experienced licensing associates.
If you already have some experience under you belt (either in industry or tech transfer itself), look for assistant director positions for your specific field of expertise — that could be engineering, drug design, agriculture, or life sciences in general. These positions oversee multiple technologies during the commercialization process. Forming connections with industry is important in this role, so experience in the biotech or pharmaceutical industries can be seen as a plus.
If you want to get your feet wet, the AUTM foundation offers a tech-transfer training program for early-career professionals and those looking to transition into tech commercialization, and the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center runs programs and courses about tech transfer too. These are great starting points to build your résumé and really get a feel of what a future job in tech transfer would be like.
…want to get involved
If you have the desire and means to actually lead the tech commercialization charge, the best bet would be to do your research, find a technology you believe in, and contact the associated university’s office of tech transfer. They can connect you with the researchers and give you information about licensing options. The AUTM innovation marketplace also has a database that showcases university technologies available for licensing nationwide. A simple search can turn up dozens of project ideas waiting to be brought to market and they even have an annual conference.
Once you’re in, a typical career in tech transfer progresses from licensing assistant to associate, then to assistant or associate director, then to director or executive director. Tech transfer offices and firms are structured differently, so room for growth and upward mobility will be greatly dependent on the office itself.
Tech transfer is a big field that touches on academic research, patent law, marketing, and industry. Much of the work is done in an academic or university setting, although the goal is to foster partnerships within the industrial, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology spheres. Therefore, an understanding of industry and how it works are good traits as you start or build your career in tech transfer. Stay tuned for firsthand insight into careers in tech transfer in an upcoming post!
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Beata Mierzwa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego. She is also an artist with a growing science art brand.