Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Dr. Clark. Please tell us about your education and professional experience.
I began my scientific training at the University of Maryland. I had always been interested in biology, and the growing fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology were intriguing. I completed my undergraduate studies in biology with an emphasis in genetics and moved to the University of Pittsburgh for a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a research focus in cancer tumorigenesis. During post-doctoral research in North Carolina, I began exploring the next phase of my career. From early on, I knew that I wanted to find out how academic innovations became products for people and patients. During this time in the mid-1990’s, technology transfer offices were forming and growing at universities, and I signed myself up for AUTM’s (Association of University Technology Managers) basic licensing course in 1997. Although I didn’t really understand much of the course content, I was hooked. In 1998, I joined the technology transfer team at the National Cancer Institute as a fellow and moved into a federal position a year later. I moved to the University of Louisville’s office in 2006 where I became deputy director and manager for the commercialization of technologies from UofL’s health science campus and the J.G. Brown Cancer Center. In 2021, I joined the teams at University of Kentucky’s UK Innovate and Office of Technology Commercialization as a senior commercialization manager focused on therapeutic healthcare innovations. UK Innovate encompasses many areas of university innovation under one roof, and I’ve been able to learn and expand my skills in startup training and entrepreneurial team training.
Given that you have been involved in technology transfer at multiple institutions (NIH/NCI, University of Louisville, University of Kentucky) since the late 90s, how has the field changed during this period?
Oh, this is a good question, and it is one that has been explored and discussed among tech transfer offices and groups like AUTM. When I started in 1998, tech transfer had 2 main areas of focus: 1. the review, protection, marketing and licensing of research innovations, and 2. the negotiation of collaborative agreements such as material transfer agreements and nondisclosure agreements. Nowadays, these functions are sometimes referred to as “traditional tech transfer” functions. In the very early days, the process often stopped when a license was signed. It was put in a page protector in a file; the team celebrated the signing, and then efforts moved on to the next innovation in line. However, as time passed, offices realized that agreement obligations should be monitored, and compliance checks were needed to make certain that licensees were meeting product development milestones and paying fees in a timely manner. Also, as technology transfer matured, the field also found that a good way to identify industry and investor partners was by establishing relationships with potential commercialization partners. As such, universities added industry engagement activities to their technology transfer functions. More recently (in the past 5-10 years), many offices have added entrepreneurship training and mentoring, and startup company accelerators – even including some gap funding to their programs. Technology transfer is continuing to grow and evolve, and it’s exciting! I should also note the changes that I’ve seen in the academic innovators. Many of today’s faculty have “grown up” with technology transfer and are more knowledgeable and engaged in the process than in the early days.
In what ways do you think it will evolve?
Two major items will have great impact on technology transfer going forward: The CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act and the growth and expansion of artificial intelligence innovations.
The research and innovation potential from the CHIPS and Science Act is enormous. Federal agencies, including NSF, DOE, DOC, and NIST, will see huge increases in budget – much of which will be transferred to universities through grants, sponsored programs and partnerships. The university technology transfer field will need to intensify efforts and expertise to commercialize increasing numbers of innovations in the 10 key technology areas specified in the new law, including high performance computing, advanced manufacturing, advanced energy efficiency, and material science. The Act also provides for funding to support infrastructure including the building and enhancement of technology transfer capabilities within research institutions. These funds have the potential to considerably transform and strengthen technology transfer, especially in smaller institutions that have not had the resources to support their offices in the past.
Another key technology area of focus in the CHIPS and Science Act is artificial intelligence. At UK, we are having ongoing conversations about the impact of artificial intelligence in our office and within the technology transfer field. Like many offices, we have seen an increase in AI-related innovation disclosures, and we are gaining experience in the protection and commercialization of these innovations. However, our conversations have also addressed the question: How can our office use AI to enhance our own operations? We are hearing that AI tools like ChatGPT can be used to write information for patent applications, grant proposals, and journal articles. We often conduct internet searches for presentations, patentability assessments, market research, industry trends, and for a lot of other reasons. As an office, could we save time with thoughtful AI program requests? Probably – and as the technology learns and improves – most definitely. We are on the edge of a massive technology shift: AI in new academic innovations, and AI use itself in technology transfer activities.
What differences did you see between the NCI/NIH and the universities in how they supported the translation of research into commercial opportunity?
I’ll focus on the differences that I experienced going from a federal tech transfer position to a university position in Louisville, Kentucky. From my view, there were 2 main areas of distinction. As a start, I still remember one of the questions from the UofL team during my job interview in early 2006. I was asked, “Everyone knows about the great science at the NIH; companies probably come to the NIH office looking for available technologies. But here - companies don’t focus on Kentucky for valuable innovations. How are you going to find industry partners to develop our technologies?” The meaning behind that question continues to resonate. When you are in a “fly-over” state, you need to increase marketing efforts and really announce and advertise your good news stories. Building and using contacts and networks to connect to potential licensees is also key. At UK, we are celebrating a 1-year anniversary of our UK Innovate Connect (UKIC) team – focused on building relationships with companies and fostering industry/academic partnerships across the campus. Multiple times I’ve heard a licensee say, “I didn’t realize that there was so much important research and innovation in Kentucky.”
The other major difference was that the NIH didn’t have its own startup companies nor was there much entrepreneurship training or focus when I was there. NIH intramural scientists did not become founders of an NIH startup company. If those researchers had an entrepreneurial urge, they had to leave their federal position to become involved in a startup company. Moving to UofL and UK, startup companies were numerous and supported. Louisville and Lexington are both very entrepreneurial ecosystems, and it was a whole new area of tech transfer for me.
Are there lessons learned/best practices that you would recommend others incorporate into their practices?
I’m a big fan of building relationships within technology transfer. Establishing a good relationship with industry partners and investors – especially when a license agreement has been signed – will help to keep the company on track with license fees and product development diligence obligations. Creating and maintaining solid relationships with research faculty through communication and training is also very important in the innovation commercialization process. When I started in tech transfer, I often felt an “us versus them” relationship between tech transfer offices and faculty researchers, but we find success more often when it is a solid “us” working together. Building relationships is more than being responsive to incoming emails. In February 2023, I was on a panel discussion about this very topic. My fellow panelists and I talked about the benefits of building relationships, including: more engagement of university researchers with the office; increased invention disclosures; and a better under understanding of the academic versus industry cultures – from both sides.
Tell us more about UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky.
UK Innovate is under UK’s Vice President of Research, and it is all things innovation at UK! There are 4 main areas of focus of UK Innovate: Innovation Training, Technology Commercialization, Innovation Connect, and Social Innovation. The Innovation Training team has developed training programs on translational research, product development and entrepreneurship training. Our Technology Commercialization team focuses on the commercialization of UK innovations, including the review, protection and licensing of UK inventions and the co-creation of new startup companies. I mentioned our UK Innovation Connect team in an earlier response. UKIC builds and supports industry, nonprofit and private sector partnerships for research and innovations. Social Innovation is a new and rapidly growing area; social innovation focuses on solutions to social or environmental problems. The UK Social Innovation team provides efforts and support for these innovations and programs dedicated to advancing social and community impact.
What are the primary areas of focus/centers of excellence/strengths at UK?
To answer this question, I’ll start with the Research Priority Area Initiative as highlighted by the Office of the Vice President of Research. The research priority areas of focus are: Energy, Neuroscience, Cardiovascular, Diabetes and Obesity, Diversity and Inclusion, Cancer, and Substance Use Disorder. These seven areas have strength in funding and multidisciplinary scholarly activity across campus and are rapidly expanding. As part of this initiative, the VPR’s office is using strategic investment funds to seed innovative collaborative research to secure additional Federal funding. I would also note UK’s College of Engineering, especially in the areas of research including energy production and distribution; transportation and logistics; manufacturing and materials; engineering for human health; computing and information; and cyber-physical systems and security. Being a land-grant institution, UK has a strong research focus in its College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and the Gluck Equine Research Center within UK’s Department of Veterinary Science is one of the only facilities in the world that is solely dedicated to equine research.
Where do you see synergies between UK Innovate and venture creation firms?
At UK Innovate, we have become increasingly aware of and impressed with the growing number of venture creation firms: Groups that create start-ups from scratch rather than investing in pre-existing entities. Traditionally, there have been only 2 main commercialization paths for our early, preclinical life science innovations – either license to an established company or license to a startup company which is usually the innovator’s own startup. Finding an established company like big pharma that is willing to take a risk on an early stage, preclinical technology is difficult. Many universities just don’t have the funding or resources to advance a technology into clinical development alone. Licensing to a homegrown startup company also has its hurdles, most notably time, money, and experience. As I’ve mentioned before, Louisville and Lexington both have active entrepreneurial ecosystems. We also have state-wide, Kentucky-based incentives for new companies; however, solid funding and experienced talent are not as prevalent as in other areas of the U.S. As a result of these traditional commercialization path hurdles, we want to build relationships and find connections with venture creators. Our office values the approach of lowering risk by contributing an experienced team, funding, and business knowledge to help a new life science company grow. At UK Innovate, we see the venture builder model as a new and exciting opportunity for university technologies. We have life science technologies with great potential, and our UK Innovate and Launch Blue programs are helping to train our innovators about customer discovery, product development, markets, and commercialization. As such, we see a solid potential for a connection with venture creators in the development of UK life science technologies.