A conversation on one of the AUTM® discussion groups focused on formalizing a technology transfer office’s (TTO’s) triage process. The director initiating the discussion was contemplating using interns for technology triage because his resources are limited and he wanted his licensing project managers to remain focused on getting deals executed. Overall his plan was to start providing feedback on inventions in a standardized format and within a certain timeframe as a way to improve relations and build credibility with faculty.
All of this sent me down memory lane!
When Fuentek started working with a university TTO several years ago, the faculty were almost in revolt. Their opinion of the office was not particularly high. It was understandable, given the backlog of hundreds of innovation disclosures that had not been evaluated for their commercial potential or acted upon by the office. As part of the effort to clear out the backlog, Fuentek helped the office establish an internship program. Here’s what happened.
Hiring Interns for a Summer Start
We helped the TTO get the interns hired to start at the beginning of the summer. With this approach, the interns were full-time staff for several months and therefore were still efficient for the TTO later during the school year when they had other distractions. We also selected students with technical backgrounds that matched the institution’s technology portfolio. (Having a business student without a technical background trying to understand an assay is not a good way to go.)
Paying Cash, Not Credit
Interns were paid an hourly wage. This pay structure worked very well, while my observations of “class projects” have shown them to be a pretty bad arrangement. You only get the students for one semester, so you are wasting a lot of time training them for only a few months of productivity. Partial credit is not enough to get a real commitment from them, and you are likely to be their lowest priority. If they are doing it as part of a business plan class, they will have a vested interest in the outcome and that will taint the triage process. Put simply: I do not advise setting up a TTO intern program that relies on course credit—you get what you pay for.
A Well-Defined Technology Screening Process
We used a formal and well-defined technology screening process. This is essential if you are going to have students perform the tech triage for you, especially since the students will not be with you very long or for very many hours a week. In this case, the result was a high level of consistency, and it allowed us to monitor quality without having to do a lot of retraining. One detail I mentioned in the discussion group was: Less is more. Doing 40 check-boxes to rate the technology in various categories will not change the final disposition decision but will add a lot of time and frustration.
Training and Mentoring the Interns
We did extensive training and mentoring of the interns. As a result, the interns became independent, efficient, and effective with the screening process. We’ve blogged quite a bit about training and mentoring interns. These insights are collected here.
Clearing Out the Backlog
Four 4-intern teams cranked out a couple of screenings per day. This is an unusually high rate in our experience and is tied to the fact that we had a consultant working with the interns full time. For TTOs who do not have the resources to duplicate that arrangement, expect interns to take 15 to 20 hours to do a screening. (They don’t have the expertise or experience, so they need to do more homework.) Depending on how many hours/week you have them in your office, interns will probably take 2 to 4 weeks to do one report. If you have them in a summer internship first, you can reduce this time and really improve their efficiency.
Keeping the Experts Involved
Interns did the leg work for the screen/triage, but their findings were reviewed by the pros. In this case, Fuentek consultants always reviewed/approved the interns’ reports and outcomes. The TTO’s tech managers then used the reports to make their final disposition decisions. In most cases, the tech managers need to review and approve the reports before they can be used in discussions with innovators (see below).
Transparency with Inventors
Tech managers discussed each screening’s findings and disposition decision with the inventor. This was time-consuming but was essential for building positive relationships with faculty. Also, having a well-defined process, which was made transparent to the faculty, and a consistent product that explained to them why there is limited or no market potential mitigated complaints.
Caveat: If your triage process includes calling experts and potential licensees (i.e., primary research), exclude these details — especially their contact information — from the report given to the inventor. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the main one is that you do not want the inventor contacting a potential licensee to either bypass your negotiation discussions or to challenge them on the specific comments they made, thereby damaging the relationship with the prospect. (At Fuentek, we save the primary research effort for when we ramp up for technology marketing.)
It was amazing how quickly the faculty came around after we gave them their reports, explaining our process and criteria. Once they got it, they became supportive. We had a larger communications strategy at work as well, but the screening/triage reports were key. We had started the project in May, and by late winter the faculty were backing the TTO. Pretty cool, no?
We have more insights about using interns for technology screenings, including our white paper “Developing an Effective Internship Program for Your University’s Technology Transfer Office.” Or contact us to discuss how Fuentek can help your TTO establish an effective intern program.