Commentary

The Importance of Scientists Taking Technology Commercialization Classes


Smita MukherjeeAs a graduate student or a postdoctoral research associate we are so focused on getting the experiment done or writing a publication worthy research article that we often forget that there is always a possibility that our experiments can be used as preliminary data to set-up a company. Yes, the research that we are working on can be commercialized but, unfortunately, most of us in the academic world do not consider the commercialization aspect of our discoveries on a daily basis, if ever at all. However, the transfer of research and technologies from benchtop to bedside, i.e., from the laboratory space to the market space is not an easy process. It requires time, careful planning, finances, intellectual property protection, legal and business knowledge and, most importantly, an entrepreneurial and cohesive team to take an idea and make it into a marketable product. If all these requirements above appear daunting to you then I urge you to take a class in commercialization of basic research.

At this point you may ask that why do you need to take the time out from your busy schedule as a researcher and spend time in the classroom to learn things that you apparently do not need as a scientist. My answer to that is that the knowledge you gain from these classes will be useful both in an academic as well as in an industry setting. Currently, we are witnessing the emergence of an organizational ecosystem that promotes mutually beneficial relationships of private and public companies, university technology transfer offices, science parks, incubators, and industry-university research centers, which allows innovations at all stages of development to be fully accessed by interested parties. If you see yourself being part of this organizational ecosystem in the role of an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, licensing officer, company executive, etc., then you have to know the process of technology commercialization. You do not currently have to be working on a project that you think will be commercialized; however, you need to have the tools and training so that you can recognize potential inventions that could be commercialized in the near future. These classes will prepare you to take the necessary steps to properly plan and document your experiments, do invention disclosure to university technology transfer office, file patents, and understand the timing and implications of publications and presentations of your research with respect to patent filing. Moreover, these classes will give you an introduction to the process of licensing and partnering, and teach you about how to raise capital, cross regulatory hurdles, and manage business and legal aspects of technology commercialization. Even if you do not anticipate using these skills while you are a graduate student or a postdoc, nevertheless, these skills will be a life-long lesson and can be a key distinguishing factor for you, especially if you want to enter the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.

The next question you may have is to where to take these courses and how to finance them. First check with the technology transfer office at your academic institution to see if they offer such a program or can recommend a local university that offers it. If it does not exist, you may be able to request the office to start one, and you can help them with recruiting the first batch of students by speaking about its importance to your friends and colleagues. You can also offer to volunteer/intern at the office to gain practical knowledge and understand the challenges of transforming an invention to a commercial product. I personally took the certification course offered by The Office of Technology Management/Office of Enterprise Development at University of Pittsburgh and was able to secure full scholarship from the university to attend these courses. If your department/institution does not offer any scholarship then there are many local and national level scholarships that are awarded for career advancement and you can plan ahead and apply for them in order to finance your classes. However, you can also look into the possibility of personally financing these classes because the certification courses are significantly less expensive than the usual classes for credits offered by colleges and universities. Consider this as an investment in your future.

The two courses that I took during my postdoctoral research studies were very informative and aptly titled “From Benchtop to Bedside: what every scientist needs to know” and “Academic Entrepreneurship”. Both these courses exposed me to the business and entrepreneurship side of scientific inventions which I thoroughly enjoyed. These classes also prompted me to audit many other business classes in local universities in finance, marketing, biotechnology industry and corporate strategy. These classes expanded my knowledge and perspective and allowed me to specifically think about the commercial challenges of the healthcare industry. Having this business knowledge as a scientist also helped me better understand world affairs, particularly, pharmaceutical deals and negotiations, and allowed me to network and broaden my job search options. I want to end this blog with the final thought that I absolutely support the passion and career choice of conducting long-term fundamental research that may possibly never be directly commercialized, but is conducted with the goal of furthering the frontiers of human knowledge. However, if you are a budding entrepreneur or motivated to pursue career interests beyond basic research and perhaps move into the management side of pharmaceutical companies, then I strongly suggest that you take a class in technology commercialization and open yourself to a new world of opportunities.

This post was written by Smita Mukherjee who has a PhD in Biological Chemistry from University of Pennsylvania and postdoctoral research experience in Alzheimer’s disease from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. Smita is enthusiastic about using her scientific and business acumen to mentor biotech start-ups.

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  • The Robot Report

    As accurate and articulate as this article is, it is too nice. Reinventing the wheel and going about transferring technology to the commercial sector is, in all but a few cluster areas, a real problem in academia and in robotics in particular. It’s most often wasted opportunity and time.

    Consider this extreme example from a recent trip to Russia:

    Academics often don’t push for the publishing of papers. Nor do they encourage patenting or spin-offs. One story I was told was about a professor who, when shown a new American robotic invention, said that his group had invented that 10 years ago. But when asked why he neither published it or spun it off as a commercial enterprise he said, “Why? We’re academics!”

    Another problem is ego, vanity and stubborness (EVS). Clusters of alumni, professors, investors, incubators, business associations, and successful executives and entrepreneurs can be found around CMU, MIT, WPI, GA Tech and Stanford. They meet to give support, discuss and invest in the community. Joining in, participating, learning, getting acquainted with the people and their stories, helps difuse EVS and can lead to the reality checks needed along the way from a university lab to a business with a payroll, stockholders, sales, PR, and a production line and distribution channels.