Tillman Gerngross’ Plan to Revamp Tech Transfer at Dartmouth

7/24/13Follow @benthefidler

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an assistant professor in 1998. Importantly, he has the distinction of having become a credible company creator in an industry where the statistics aren’t in his favor—all while maintaining his role at the university. Back in 2002, Gerngross formed GlycoFi, a company that developed technology for producing protein drugs in yeast. Four years later, he flipped the company to Merck for a $400 million windfall and a sizeable return for its investors. With a broader strategy in mind—and the idea of becoming a profitable, private biotech—Gerngross leveraged his past success to help raise the funds to start up his next endeavor, Lebanon, NH-based Adimab, a company that uses a yeast-based process to discover antibodies for pharmaceutical companies interested in certain biological targets. Gerngross says Adimab has more than $70 million in revenue from its network of pharmaceutical collaborators this year. He also has a hand in creating other locally-based life sciences startups, such as Lebanon, NH-based Arsanis and most recently, Avitide.

Gerngross says because of his record as an entrepreneur, Dartmouth alumni asked him to take on the challenge, concerned about what has been going on with entrepreneurship at the university. Bill Helman, a partner at Greylock and a member of Dartmouth’s board of trustees, was among those who asked Gerngross to consider the new opportunity. Gerngross officially decided to grab the reins of the program in April, becoming the so-called associate provost of Entrepreneurship & Technology Transfer.

Why is Gerngross taking this on? He’s livid with how tech transfer is run, and doesn’t mince words about it. As part of one’s employment contract with a university, he says, any faculty member has an obligation to disclose anything that could be seen as an invention to the university, and send a write-up of the idea to the tech transfer office. The office then decides whether the idea is commercially valuable enough to apply for a patent. If the college decides to pursue the patent, it becomes the legal owner of the invention and spends its resources drafting and prosecuting patents until it secures one. Gerngross says that while occasionally a patent will garner interest and get licensed, a majority of them get filed, prosecuted, issued, and “sit in a folder.” In the meantime, the tech transfer office typically judges its success by the amount of patents it files, while the university ends up haggling over a piece of ownership in the company, or how much money it will take to release the IP, he says.

“The notion that tech transfer offices are an enabler of value creation is ridiculous,” Gerngross says. “Anyone who’s had to deal with a tech transfer office is just pulling their hair out—they’re really in the taxing progress business.”

Gengross says the idea that tech transfer offices are there to help ideas from university campuses get commercialized and make their way out into the world is really a guise for their true intended service as “revenue generating centers” for the university—even though all but “maybe half a dozen in the country” lose money. Tech transfer offices, he argues, spend more money occupying university space, staffing up, and accruing legal expenses to prosecute patents than they do actually bringing in licensing revenue through collaborations.

“In other words, it’s a money-losing proposition,” he says. “My view is, we’re spending all this effort being between the innovator and actual innovation. Why don’t we get out of the way and, in fact, position ourselves somewhat differently, namely, as the enabler? Why don’t we go to our faculty and say, that’s an interesting idea, how can we help you create value? How can we help you start a company, attract more money, and build something?”

Gerngross, for example, says he went “outside of his funded work” on research grants at Dartmouth when he came up with the ideas that ultimately led to GlycoFi and Adimab. That enabled him to … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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  • Innovation

    The process that is being reformed would help me bring my invention to market sooner. I can not say much more than that w/o having general council do any talks for legal reason