Beyond the Bench: a Career in Technology Transfer

Becoming a technology-transfer professional is a great alternative career for people with advanced degrees in the STEM fields. Technology transfer is the process of commercializing research, including evaluating a discovery for its commercial merit, protecting a discovery via patents and copyrights, and licensing it to either a start-up or established company. Professionals who work in universities’ tech-transfer offices frequently have formal training in science, law, business, or all three.

Sean Flanigan, president of the Association of University Technology Managers and assistant director of technology partnerships at the University of Ottawa, says scientists who seek careers beyond basic research often experience flickers of entrepreneurship. Tech-transfer professionals must develop a working knowledge of science, contract law, and intellectual-property law; they must also play nicely with others.

The good news is that a passion for science is, in Mr. Flanigan’s opinion, the most important predictor of success in technology transfer, because it can’t be taught. Most newly hired scientists will learn the legal issues on the job, and will have to accept that they must be generalists on the types of technologies they are asked to work with. For instance, a person may have trained as a synthetic organic chemist, but may end up working with photovoltaics (a method of generating electrical power by converting sunlight into energy) and biotechnologies.

Many technology-transfer offices have internship programs designed to recruit research-savvy graduate students. Interns typically work five to 10 hours per week for a modest wage, usually around $8 to $10 per hour. Internships are a great way for interns to get a taste of working in the field and for offices to see if an intern might be a good fit for a permanent hire.

Mr. Flanigan suggests that student membership in his association (which costs $50) is a great way to explore the field. The first step he recommends is reading the Technology Transfer Practice Manual, which offers a comprehensive look at best practices. Members then will want to view recorded Webinars and then perhaps consider taking a course or attending a regional or national meeting. The association publishes a salary survey and a survey of licensing activity every year, and its Web site has postings of job opportunities in tech transfer.

Tech-transfer case managers work closely with faculty inventors, with patent and contract lawyers, and with both established and start-up businesses. They are considered to be university administrators and often have access to faculty-level benefits packages but not to tenure.

The typical career progression is from intern to case manager to assistant or associate director to director; some larger universities have vice-provost-level positions for commercialization. The office director may report to the vice provost for research, to the chief financial officer, or to the chancellor. Offices range in size from only one or two professionals to 50 or 60 employees.

“Faculty are our clients,” says Mr. Flanigan. “We have to be good listeners, to understand the inventor’s expectations and possible limitations. Creativity and objectivity are important soft skills for the technology-transfer professional.”

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.

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