It’s a bit like a Tolstoy novel: Happy internship programs are all alike. Well, maybe not alike. But they are pretty consistent across the technology transfer spectrum.
This was the consensus of panelists and attendees at a session of the recent Association of University Technology Managers® (AUTM®) annual meeting in Anaheim, California. The dynamic and interactive Frequently Asked Questions about Intern Programs session about effective internship programs attracted quite a crowd, especially considering it was one of the final sessions on the last day of AUTM 2012 (an indicator of how important this topic is to university TTOs).
I’ve blogged in the past about how internship programs can be a valuable asset to TTOs as long as there is proper structuring and significant investment in training and mentoring. (You can easily find these past blogs in our Insights section on internship programs.) These recommendations were based on Fuentek’s experience with several university clients, and it was gratifying to hear from other organizations that had implemented a similar approach with similar success.
Moderated by Dr. Cory Acuff of Emory University, the session drew on industry best practices to answer questions about the Who, What, When, Why, and How surrounding internship programs. I joined Drs. Kimberlynn B. Davis of McKeon Meunier Carlin & Curfman LLC, Stephen J. Susalka of Wake Forest University Health Sciences, and Patrick Twomey of the National Cancer Institute to discuss successful internship programs and what makes them tick.
In general, everyone agreed on the principles of running a good internship program: choose the right candidates, train them well, provide them with the support they need to succeed, and evaluate their work in order to validate their recommendations and ensure they bring value to your organization.
Having clear objectives and expectations is key, but also recognize that the return on investment is not necessarily a clear financial benefit. Consider the approach taken by Wake Forest University Health Sciences, where one role of the interns is to serve as “ambassadors” between the tech transfer office and various research departments. Interns give formal presentations about the value of tech transfer to their peers within their departments. At WFU, one goal of the internship program is increasing invention disclosures, and these formal presentations allow interns to educate colleagues and at the same time develop relationships that foster tech transfer opportunities.
My contribution to the panel discussion? I had a lot of fun developing a David Letterman-style presentation of the Top 10 list. The schedule was such that I did a Top 5 at the panel. So I figured I’d share the full Top 10 list here. Drumroll, please!
The Top 10 Hints Your Tech Transfer Internship Program Is in Trouble Are…
No. 10: 90% of your portfolio is life sciences – 90% of your interns are electrical and mechanical engineers. Be sure to match interns’ skills with the technologies in your portfolio to ensure technical competence.
No. 9: Your key hiring criterion is, “Can you calculate this equation?” You want more than just technical competence. Look for business experience along with technical insights or consider teams of interns with varied skill sets.
No. 8: “You’re hired. Come in the day after Labor Day.” We recommend recruiting in January, training in April/May, and starting in May/June.
No. 7: “We think interning with us will be a great way to spend the next couple of months while you wrap up your Ph.D.” Select students who will be working toward their degrees at least one more full academic year, so they can provide value throughout the school year.
No. 6: “Your starting salary is… nothing.” As Laura Schoppe blogged about previously, we generally do not recommend setting up a TTO internship program that relies on credit. However, an unpaid internship program can be successful if the program provides a great deal of other value to participating students. Emory’s was a good example of a program carefully designed to offset the lack of salary.
No. 5: “Chris is a great intern. My copies never have coffee spills on them!” Giving interns busy-work will cost the TTO an opportunity to have the office really benefit in terms of productivity.
No. 4: “Hi, I’m an intern with the university’s TTO. Would you like to license our newest widget?” But don’t give them too much responsibility. Screening is just right for interns.
No. 3: “Here are 50 technologies for you to screen this summer. Let me know when you’re done with the first half.” Solid training and ongoing mentoring are both critical.
No. 2: Riley’s screening reports are 2 pages long. Jamie’s are 20 pages long. “No problem!” Having a formal, well-defined technology screening process results in a consistent product and makes it easier for TTOs to monitor intern output without having to do a lot of retraining.
And the No. 1 hint your tech transfer internship program is in trouble…
“This internship program is going to save this office SO much money!” Given the amount of training and mentoring needed, cost savings will not be significant. But TTOs do get big benefits in terms of productivity (avoiding technology backlogs) and efficiency (technology managers being able to focus on prioritizing, marketing, negotiating, etc.). And the tech transfer community also benefits from the training these interns receive. Sure, they might not become technology transfer professionals. But they will have a greater understanding of the important role of tech transfer in today’s world. And that’s a good thing.
What’s been the experience for your TTO internship program? Submit a comment below or send us a private message via our Contact Us page.