Harvard’s Guru of Tech Transfer: More Seed Funding, Industry Deals Afoot—and the Social Mission is Key

4/4/08Follow @bbuderi

Harvard has taken a bit of a bashing over the years on the tech transfer front. After all, MIT, the champion of university technology transfer and licensing, is right down the river, and at least some business leaders and alumni feel the school should be doing more to match its neighbor in commercializing its pioneering research.

Isaac Kohlberg agrees—and he’s on it. Kohlberg, whose official title is senior associate provost and chief technology development officer, heads Harvard’s Office of Economic Development. In just two full years on the job, he has worked to overhaul almost everything about the office, from its staff to its organization. He’s helped grow industry-sponsored research for the university at a 70-percent annual rate or higher, and has put in place several changes—with more in the wings—to up the dollars Harvard takes in from royalties and licensing deals.

But, as you’ll see, the point of his actions isn’t simply to bring in dollars to an already flush institution. (Harvard’s endowment, at $35 billion and rising, is the nation’s largest.) It’s also about doing more to move Harvard innovations—chiefly in the medical arena—out into the world where they can help people in developing nations, and Kohlberg is willing to do royalty-free deals to bring that about.

“That’s a major piece of our strategy and our mission,” Kohlberg said of this loftier goal, which isn’t exactly common in technology licensing offices, when I visited him earlier this week at his Harvard Square office to learn more about his plans. Turns out, he has a lot of them—and in fact, he’s already set in motion far more than I had realized. It typically takes years for the seeds of tech transfer to bear fruit, so it’ll be a while before Harvard catches up to MIT in its tech transfer efforts. But it seems likely the gap will soon be narrowing, if it hasn’t already.

Kohlberg came to Harvard as a change agent in summer 2005 after turning around technology transfer activities at Tel Aviv University in Israel and building New York University’s efforts almost from scratch. But he says it was really his experience in Israel that shaped much of what he is doing at Harvard. Israeli research institutions, he says, pioneered tech transfer in the 1950s, back when there was really only one major effort at a U.S. university, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation associated with the University of Wisconsin. (The blood thinner Warfarin, also known as Coumadin, was originally developed under the foundation’s sponsorship—and so was Vitamin D.) It wasn’t until 1980, when passage of the Bayh-Dole act allowed U.S. universities to keep the IP rights to technology spawned from federally funded research, that tech transfer efforts really took off in the U.S., he says.

Kohlberg was recruited to Harvard in 2005 by then president Larry Summers and current provost Steven Hyman. He got right to work overhauling operations, bringing two tech transfer offices—one at Harvard Medical School, and one on the main campus—into a single university-wide program. He then reoriented the entire professional staff, which had previously been focused on technology licensing, to full-blown business development. To that end, Kohlberg says, “We have hired a new team of directors of business development” whose job is to engage university faculty and outside firms to find, nurture, and develop research for commercialization, as well as to license existing technologies. And to symbolize this broader, more active mission, he changed the name of the organization itself—from the Office of Technology Licensing to the Office of Technology Development.

The office was reorganized according to areas of practice. Life sciences, the primary focus, has five full-time directors of business development, three based at the medical school in Boston and two in Cambridge. Kohlberg also set up a three-person engineering-materials-information technology team. Complementing them come a basketball squad-sized 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.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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