Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Interview with Kelly Sivertson Parsons, PhD, Technology Development Associate in the University of North Carolina Office of Technology Development


Most graduate students have heard of small biotech start-ups that "spin off" of a faculty member's research. In recent years UNC professors have spawned more than 30 such companies such as Global Vaccines, Inspire Pharmaceuticals, and Therologics to name just a few. But how do these academic professors learn to start and manage a company, license their ideas, and introduce their products onto the market? The answer is they get a lot of help from the Office of Technology Development (OTD) at UNC. This interview with Kelly Sivertson Parsons, PhD, a Technology Development Associate in the OTD will shed some light on how a one-time bench researcher such as yourself is now applying her scientific understanding to the business of science.

Kelly received a B.S. in Biology from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. in Microbiology/Immunology from Wake Forest University. She was a postdoc at UNC for two years and has been with the OTD since March of 2008.

What are your day to day responsibilities in the Office of Technology Development? Kelly explains that UNC's Office of Technology Development follows a "cradle to grave" model meaning that they support a researcher's idea or invention from the moment the idea is conceived until the day the patent expires. The life of a patentable idea can be broken down into the following steps, all of which Kelly has a hand in: triage, patenting, marketing, and licensing and business development. Kelly's role in all these steps is that of an advocate and liaison for the University and the researcher. Not surprising a big part of her job is educating faculty about the process and explaining what is happening to "their baby" throughout the process. Let's take a closer look at her role in each of these steps.

Triage. When a researcher approaches the OTD with an idea they believe is marketable, the project is assigned to a staff member who assesses the value of the technology and whether it is commercially viable. If for some reason the idea is not deemed valuable or patentable, the staff member has the challenge of tactfully explaining the reason to the researcher. As Kelly put it, "Sometimes you have to tell someone their baby is ugly, and that can be difficult. At times, the hardest thing for scientists to grasp is that good science and commercial viability aren't always one and the same."

Patenting. When a technology or idea is sufficiently developed and has potential for being marketed it must be patented to prove ownership and allow the idea to be insulated from outside competition. Most universities including UNC don't have their own patent attorneys, instead they contract with a life science patent company to draft and submit a patent to the US patent office. Kelly's involvement in this step centers around providing information to the patent lawyer assigned to the case and reviewing the patent draft with the researcher before submission.

Marketing & Licensing. Kelly explains, "At the point that we have a patent in hand we are also responsible for licensing that particular technology. We reach out to our contacts, either people who we think might want the technology, or people who can comment on what needs to be done before the idea will be attractive to a company." Kelly describes this process as one of the most difficult and time consuming responsibilities a technology development associate has. It requires an in depth knowledge of the technology and its applications, an understanding of the needs of potential buyers, and a measure of salesmanship to align those two concepts in the minds of the investors.

When an interested party is identified, Kelly is directly involved in drafting and negotiating the actual licensing agreement between the inventor, the University, and the company. Sometimes that company is a preexisting company with an interest in the technology, and sometimes a new company is formed around the technology to further develop the idea with the hope that the start up will be "bought out" at a later date.

Strategic planning and business development. "After we have a successful license agreed upon and signed, we still continue to follow that technology all the way through, working with the company to manage the patent portfolio, and dealing with whatever ongoing needs they have" explains Kelly. For a start up company this service is more critical and can include advice about hiring new personnel, finding additional investors, or helping the company to acquire new patents, begin a clinical trial, or perform marketing research.

Throughout the entire process, Kelly is an invaluable resource for the inventor – leveraging her contacts and the resources of the OTD to ensure the successful development of the idea for the benefit of the university, the inventor, and the future consumer/beneficiary of the technology.

What makes your job fun? It was obvious from the beginning of the interview that Kelly enjoys her job. When I asked her what she enjoys the most she responded, "I'm more of a social person, so I enjoy the interactions with our inventors – the professors, grad students, and postdocs. In addition to meeting people, I enjoy learning about a wide spectrum of science that I never would learn about as a bench scientist. It's just kind of fun to be in the middle of everything."

Do you find anything frustrating about your job? After thinking for a moment, Kelly explained, "I would say the same thing that is great about the job can also be the most frustrating – that is that there are so many things going on at one time. Being efficient and using your time well are really important to get the job done. What makes the job really fun is that in the course of the week no day is the same, but at the same time it's hard to feel like your really gaining traction because there's so much happening all the time."

When did you decide on tech transfer as a career path and how did you prepare for this career? Kelly explained that during graduate school she flirted with the idea of going to law school to become a patent lawyer, but as she learned more about the job she couldn't see herself drafting and reviewing patents for the rest of her life. Instead of going to law school she decided to do a postdoc at UNC and used the time to continue to explore career options in the sciences. One day she attended a TIBBS career panel on technology transfer and "suddenly realized I could do all the things I wanted to do without going to law school. I really enjoyed the academic environment and here I was learning about tech transfer opportunities in an academic setting! I learned that I could be involved in intellectual property law, but not have to draft patents. I could still stay current on the science and feel like I was using the education I invested so much time in."

With a clear vision and new-found excitement for a career in university technology transfer, Kelly contacted the Office of Technology Development at UNC and volunteered to help in any way she could in exchange for the chance to get her feet wet. At the time a formal internship in the OTD hadn't been developed yet so she had to persist until she was given a chance. Soon thereafter Kelly also volunteered to help on a "Launch the Venture" team through the Kenan Flagler Business School in order to get more business experience. For 5 months she volunteered her nights and weekends to gain experience in technology transfer, while doing her postdoctoral research during the day. All the hard work and persistence paid off when a position in the OTD opened up. Kelly applied, was accepted, and started her duties as Technology Development Associate in March of 2008.

Are there certain personality characteristics that are especially well suited to tech transfer? "I think technology transfer is especially well suited to extraverted scientists that enjoy a lot of personal interactions, like meetings, phone calls, and making contacts," Kelly explains. Other innate or acquired characteristics of scientists who have succeeded in technology transfer careers are an entrepreneurial spirit, an aptitude for deal making, well-honed organizational skills (needed to manage multiple overlapping deadlines), and the ability to respectfully influence people in positions of authority who are key to the success of a project.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? "I really like university administration so for me the academic direction is where I see myself. It's a great job and also a very good lifestyle." Although Kelly plans to stay in academic tech transfer she points out that, "there have been people from this office who have left to go into management positions at small biotech companies, or business development offices in big pharma. There are people who have left to go to venture capital firms, and some have left to take jobs higher up the food chain in academic tech transfer."

What is a typical salary for someone working in a university technology development office? A typical starting salary for a technology development associate in an academic tech transfer office is in the range of $65,000 to $75,000. It's not uncommon for an experienced tech transfer professional to make closer to $100,000 and the director of the office can easily make more than $100,000.

What advice do you have for others interested in a career in academic tech transfer? Kelly responded, "I would say that most people I know of who have gotten into this type of a position had an experience in a tech transfer office as a grad student or a postdoc. I would say that volunteering your time and being as proactive as possible is really important."

Kelly also suggested that people interested in tech transfer careers explore the websites of the Licensing Executive Society (LES) and the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) which has a job board with current openings. A link to information about the UNC OTD internship (which was instituted after Kelly's informal internship) can be found here and the link for the Kenan Flagler Business School Launch the Venture program can be found here. The TIBBS website also has information about tech transfer careers.

If you have a question for Kelly that wasn't answered here she invites you to append your question to this post between now and January 10th at which point she'll do her best to answer any questions that have been posted. If you're unsure how to post a question on this blog, please see the text box at the upper right hand corner of the blog titled, "How do I post a comment or question?". Thanks for reading.

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  3. Dear Kelly,
    I enjoyed reading this post, very helpful.
    I am getting an offer as Tech Lic Officer, I am scientist in materials science and technology with 6 years experience after my phd. Do you think it's a good opportunity at this stage? How is the evolution in this career? How wide is the horizon for later to move forward and higher?
    Thank you
    Katrina

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