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Noeleen O'Hara by Noeleen O'Hara

ASTP 2021, more than anticipated: first attendance of LifeArc AUTM Fellows

Article by LifeArc Fellows:

Lucia Coral, Technology Transfer Manager, National Cancer Institute C.R.O. in Aviano, Italy;

Monique Liddar, Enterprise and Innovation Manager, St. George’s University London, UK; and

Marie Mifsud, Executive, Knowledge Transfer Office, University of Malta, Malta

The recent ASTP annual conference saw two cohorts of LifeArc AUTM Fellows and this year’s AUTM Fellows make their make their debut at a European Technology Transfer conference. Last year’s cohorts, disappointed by the cancellation of the 2020 conference in Lisbon, had the chance to make up for lost time by joining the 2020-21 group at the associations first online conference. Despite the loss of in person networking, the sound of applause and sense of community, the conference turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable event.

While preparing for the conference, the fellows hoped to increase their understanding of the European technology transfer (TT) landscape, build a European network and learn more about what the priorities are for the TT sector in Europe. Additionally, the conference offered the opportunity to see whether there are common models, regulations or best practices across the different countries and potentially use them in our own offices.

The conference was spread over three days- 26-28th May 2021 and completely virtual.

Overview of the ASTP Conference

The spontaneous interaction between ASTP Board members and the speakers highlighted the cross point at which the association can collaborate and add value to initiatives carried out by the European Commission and in particular by the Joint Research Centre, the Directorate-General RTD for Research and Innovation and the European Innovation Council. It is not easy to navigate all the initiatives proposed by the European Commission in the field of innovation and the overview offered by ASTP has been illuminating. It was interesting to learn about the different measures and projects supported by the research centre.

Many technology transfer offices (TTOs) are too small to manage the amount of research that is being generated and also struggle to find resources. The driving force of TT is leadership and culture, hence if this culture remains stagnant, the contribution to innovation revolution and growth generation will be minimal. European technology transfer can be fragmented, but EU initiatives for TT, such as formalising the definition of innovation through ISO standards and new TT business models might be a solution to these struggles.

Technology Transfer is all about balancing needs from different stakeholders. Throughout the conference, the word ‘impact’ came up often and it was evident different stakeholders had different understandings of what this word meant Prof. Pietrabissa, Rector and Professor of Industrial Bioengineering - IUSS University School of Pavia, Italy said “Research and teaching are the tools to achieve the real goal of universities: to generate impact in the society”. Nevertheless, research should maintain the freedom to explore with a curiosity-driven approach, because it helps solve problems that we do not yet know we have.

Therefore, what is impact?

Many TT professionals believe that money should be a side effect and not the goal of the innovation process. However, this opinion is not shared by all. During the workshop on Portfolio Management, focus was given to the importance of assessing disclosures and having high-quality disclosures. It is important to answer the right questions addressing the technology’s application, market and value chain. Hence, do we address the need for societal improvement or the need to generate income?

Spin-outs and Conflict of Interest

Each TTO has its own policies that need to align with those of the respective University. TTO policies address i.e. benefit sharing with inventors and spin-out companies, and budget management. Struggles specifically associated to university spinouts are the researchers’ time management, income allocation and conflict of interest (CoI). CoI’s are inevitable and awareness on this topic should be raised early. Strategies to handle CoI’s should be identified for different scenarios, including researchers who are willing to form a spinout and TT professionals advising those researchers, and later negotiating IP licensing agreement on behalf of the University.

Observations confirmed that European spin-outs seem to struggle in relation to VC investment when compared to the US. The session relating to Life Science Term Sheets helped identify certain pre-set terms which VCs are more open to accepting. An early open conversation can set the stage to ameliorate future negotiations. Issues relating to the assignment of very early-stage IP to the spin-out should be addressed in the beginning and both TT professionals and researchers should be more open to new collaborative scenarios.

Negotiation Strategies

Another session which provided great insight into how TTO’s prepare for licence negotiations was Anja Zimmermann’s talk on ‘Negotiating Licensing terms in Life Sciences’. Advice included, ensuring the technology’s readiness level of your technology is known and the importance of understanding the needs of the licensor.” Something I will take forward with me is to always know your BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) when entering into a negotiation” said Monique Liddar.

Fellow’s Opinion

For the fellows working in a TTO, the conference addressed several challenges that we are all facing, which was comforting to see and provided a great opportunity for discussions.

“Often in TTO’s we struggle to figure out what different stakeholders in the technology transfer process consider as value. We also struggle to put efficient and valuable processes in place” said Marie Mifsud. The conference provided some really great case studies that we could take away with us to improve the efficiency of our processes.

“I’ve learnt that both researchers and TT professionals need freedom to explore. You can have market driven research and TT procedures and policies, but a bit of uncertainty contributes to generating innovation” said Lucia Coral. Lucia went on to say “the information provided from discussions around conflict of interest, leadership involvement and portfolio management are useful as the learning can be applied to daily practice in the office”.

All fellows feel that the conference met their expectations, some even stated a performance for the convenience provided by a virtual format. Those who had already experienced an in-person event, the opportunities of networking in coffee breaks were missed. “I attended the ASTP Fall Meeting in 2019 and although I thoroughly enjoyed the ASTP 2021 Annual Meeting, I missed the positive energy of the people. It is more powerful in the in-person setting. I missed applauses and spontaneous comments and reactions, however ASTP still managed to come up with an engaging and enjoyable conference” said Lucia Coral.

Conclusion

We felt the take home was that for TT professionals to have the freedom to succeed, there needs to be wise use of TT resources, increased visibility and stable initiatives. Through this combination with research empowerment we will be able to unleash the power of both fundamental and translational science into impactful technologies.

We would all like to thank the team at ASTP for putting together such a great virtual conference which included a great yoga session and a refreshing morning run. We would also like to thank the rest of the LifeArc AUTM fellows who contributed to this article and provided their insight. We all look forward to hopefully attending in person in the future!

About the LifeArc AUTM Fellowship Programme

The LifeArc AUTM Technology Transfer programme is a training programme designed to help scientists transition from the laboratory to become technology transfer professionals. Details of the programme can be found here.This programme is accepting application for the next fellowship cohort. Details of how to apply and the eligibility criteria can be found here.

Anji Miller MSc PhD CLP RTTP is a Senior Business Manager for LifeArc and leads the LifeArc AUTM Fellowship in collaboration with AUTM. If you would like to hear more, contact Anji at anji.miller@LifeArc.org.

About LifeArc

LifeArc is a self-funded medical research charity. Our mission is to advance translation of early science into health care treatments or diagnostics that can be taken through to full development and made available to patients. We have been doing this for more than 25 years and our work has resulted in a diagnostic for antibiotic resistance and four licensed medicines.

We have our own drug discovery and diagnostics development facilities, supported by experts in technology transfer and intellectual property who also provide services to other organisations.

Find out more about our work on www.LifeArc.org

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