Harvard’s Guru of Tech Transfer: More Seed Funding, Industry Deals Afoot—and the Social Mission is Key
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team of lawyers: two IP attorneys, and three transactions specialists. The whole office is more than half again the size it was when Kohlberg arrived. But more important than the numbers, he says, is the organization’s new approach. Personnel don’t just think in terms of transferring technology, he says, but about assisting faculty in getting research support, starting companies, and establishing and developing research agreements, strategic alliances, and industry collaborations. “We look at the relationships with industry in a more holistic way,” Kohlberg says. “What my team does now, they really provide to the faculty a broad spectrum of services.”
A big part of Kohlberg’s vision can be seen in the Technology Development Accelerator Fund he started early last year to advance Harvard’s biomedical and life sciences research toward commercialization. The fund has already completed its first round of investments—putting a total of $1.3 million into six projects spanning cancer, diabetes, and HIV, among other things. And this February, Kohlberg’s office announced it was launching a second funding round. This time around, Kohlberg says, “We’ll probably fund, I would say, seven to eight projects.” He expects to provide another $1.2 million or so for the entire group, or an average of roughly $150,000 per project. That’s enough, he says, to “really take a project…across the development gap” and advance early-stage efforts to the point where they are ready for commercial funding.
But the accelerator, which is exclusively focused on life sciences and biomedical fields, is just the first step. “What we are planning is to create two similar accelerator programs,” says Kohlberg. One will be focused on bioengineering, the other encompassing engineering, applied sciences, and materials sciences, he says. Both are expected to launch in 2009.
Kohlberg stresses that the intention of these accelerators is not necessarily to position the faculty to launch startup companies. A good outcome in his view would also be a licensing agreement with an existing firm, for instance. “The whole strategy is to create value,” says Kohlberg. That means getting a technology to development and then to market in whatever way is most feasible and effective, he says.
More research collaborations with industry are also in the cards. Typically, Kohlberg says, industry-sponsored research accounts for something like 7 percent of the research budget at major research universities. But before he arrived, Kohlberg says, Harvard was getting less than 2 percent of its research funds from industry. “We are aiming to change that,” he says. One way to bump it up quickly is through the creation of large strategic alliances or research centers such as Harvard’s $20 million partnership with BASF. Under the five-year initiative, announced last fall, BASF will fund proof-of-concept projects within Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and will have the right to develop and market innovations with commercial potential.
In December, Kohlberg followed that up with a multi-year, multi-million dollar program (exact terms were not disclosed) with Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals designed to advance research in oncology, infectious disease, immunology and inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases, and other areas. Such deals helped industry-sponsored research at Harvard grow between 70 percent in the 2006-07 fiscal year, Kohlberg says. For the current year, which ends June 30, he expects it to rise by at least that much. And, he says, stay tuned for more. “We may be announcing something big in May, maybe even before, maybe at the end of April.”
As we went over all these developments and plans, Kohlberg’s passion for his job was evident. “There’s no place like this in the world,” he says of the Boston area life sciences scene and its combination of major research universities, academic medical centers, research driven hospitals, startups, and big companies. Not only does that give Harvard a perfect opportunity to license technologies and form research collaborations, it also provides a major opportunity for the school to fulfill a greater mission of helping the developing world.
His office has been innovating on that front as well, in some cases foregoing royalties on licensing deals that advance this aim. Last June, for instance, Kohlberg’s office granted Medicine in Need (MEND), a non-profit drug delivery technology platform corporation, a royalty-free license on vaccine and drug products—initially focused on tuberculosis—to people in impoverished nations. When it comes to such efforts, says Kohlberg, “We believe that we need to become really a pillar or lighthouse.”