I recently had the opportunity to serve as a panelist at the Careers in Tech Transfer workshop hosted by Duke University Postdoctoral Services and Duke’s Career Center. Along with industry peers Elizabeth Denholm of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Office of Technology Transfer, Kelly Sivertson Parsons of the UNC Office of Technology Development, and Dennis Thomas of Duke’s Office of Licensing & Ventures, I answered questions about how graduate students and postdocs can break into careers in tech transfer and what types of qualities are sought after among job applicants.
Many of the students attending the workshop were interested in learning how to make their way into a tech transfer career right out of grad school. Unfortunately, our answers for them were not so easy. The fact of the matter is that tech transfer careers are more commonly achieved after professionals have already established themselves in an area of science or research with substantial exposure to the business side of R&D. This experience is critical for breaking into tech transfer.
That said, my own career path—which I shared with the workshop attendees—helped me attain this experience.
Getting involved with a tech transfer internship program can often provide fast-track experience that research grad students and postdocs need. Case in point: By the time I was completing my Ph.D. research, I knew I loved science, but I wanted a career that would afford me broader exposure to the scientific world than a narrowly defined area of research would. So I started looking into other opportunities.
I enrolled in the business school’s master’s program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That same year the University’s Office of Technology Management started an internship program under the guidance of Fuentek.
I was fortunate to work with a team of 16 other grad students, broken into groups of four by areas of specialty, that summer. We worked through a backlog of about 700 technologies in every area of science and technology imaginable. We gained a tremendous amount of experience in identifying uses and markets for technologies and being exposed to the commercial side of technology in a very short amount of time. And this set a strong foundation for what would eventually become my current career.
My background as a researcher along with my exposure to business in the MBA program was a great combination for a career in tech transfer. But even if you don’t enroll in a business school, you can leverage the business students to gain some experience.
For example, if as a research student you have an idea for a new technology, propose it to an MBA student as a new business opportunity and offer to help with writing the business plan. Although this may be an academic exercise, it will expose you to the skill set needed for tech transfer and it may have the potential to lead to a real business.
I have some first-hand experience with this. While a business student at UIUC, a friend of mine (he’s now my husband) developed a design for a new fuel cell. We decided to write up a business plan together and took it to several business plan competitions judged by venture capitalists. The feedback we received was consistent: we should take the plan and really run with it. So we did. After 2 years, we finally attracted a substantial round of funding and were able to make the business our day jobs
Of course, being successful with a startup isn’t easy. But universities and government labs have been putting a lot of emphasis on entrepreneurship and startups. This makes for a good environment for students with an entrepreneurial spirit.
So, although a career in tech transfer may not be waiting for you as soon as you graduate, several paths are available to get you there relatively quickly. Fortunately, the initiative and self-discipline needed to go after these opportunities are the same qualities that make for a successful career in tech transfer.