Tillman Gerngross’ Plan to Revamp Tech Transfer at Dartmouth
For all its cache as an Ivy League school and a beacon of research in New England, the Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH has an innovation problem. It’s looking now to one of the area’s most successful biotech entrepreneurs to solve it.
It isn’t that the ideas aren’t there. It isn’t that the university isn’t churning out smart, motivated people who are attracted to innovation. Take a quick look at some of the bigger life science venture capital firms— Venrock, Polaris Partners, SV Life Sciences, Greylock Partners, to name a few—and you’ll see Dartmouth alumni littered through their ranks. Rather, it’s that those ideas aren’t leading to commercial opportunities, and ultimately, businesses with enough regularity. And Tillman Gerngross, who started out as an associate professor there 15 years ago before forming two life sciences companies—GlycoFi and Adimab—and becoming one of the area’s most successful, well-known biotech entrepreneurs, is taking that challenge head-on with a bold plan: to reshape how the university handles tech transfer.
“The output of our education is highly entrepreneurial or very close to the innovation/entrepreneurship space, but in the institution somewhat we’ve not found a way of connecting to that outside world,” he says.
So Gerngross is heading a new initiative at Dartmouth called the Office of Entrepreneurship & Technology Transfer, through which he plans to change the way the typical university tech transfer office is run. The official duties of the office are to oversee several of Dartmouth’s existing offices, such as the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, and the college’s existing tech transfer office. But as Gerngross explains, he wants to turn the office into a true enabler of innovation, rather than a gatekeeper of it. To do this, he wants to give entrepreneurs the ownership of their inventions, help them find the best method for them to build value, aid with the creation of infrastructure, and help connect those companies with the university’s vast network of venture capital alumni.
“I think you can create a much more exciting story than what you’re doing now, which is basically being in the taxing innovation business,” he says.
Gerngross’ entrepreneurial successes and outspoken demeanor have given him the credibility to do so. Gerngross came to Dartmouth as 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 retain more ownership and control of the direction of his inventions. So what Gerngross wants to do is hand the inventor (the student or faculty member) that type of power even if it’s a part of that student or professor’s funded work, rather than mandating that it’s given to the university, and then help the inventor identify the best way to nurture it.
This could be achieved in multiple ways, depending on the invention and the inventor’s personal, professional, or financial goals. But Gerngross outlined two scenarios for how that would work. In one scenario, a researcher at a Dartmouth lab—with no interest in owning or running a company—discovers something, and reports the findings to the office. The experts there could look at the idea and make a “purely financial” decision and determine that it has a good chance of attracting interest and could make money, for instance, as a next-generation diagnostic. It would then prosecute the patents, and if someone wants to buy the technology, hand a majority of the cash to the university, with the rest going to the inventor, according to Gerngross.
In a different scenario, an inventor could come to the office with an idea for something that could have a “broad impact” and is interested in developing a prototype and getting it out into the medical community. The office would help the inventor: set up a company and transfer all of the IP into it; get additional capital into the company so the inventor can do things that couldn’t be done in an academic lab; and bring in a team to help with the commercial aspects of a company build-out.
“Before you know it, the person has an infrastructure around him that allows him to do something that in the past would’ve been impossible,” Gerngross says.
He adds that the office plans to help with that funding by either acting as a liaison with the venture funds its officers know in the relevant space, or gauging the interest of the Angeli Parvi, an angel fund set up by Dartmouth alumni.
“If [we can help] a dozen or half a dozen of them build successful companies, that’s success for us,” he says.
Even so, the idea is in its early stages. Gerngross explains that despite the creation of the new office, all of Dartmouth’s old policies regarding tech transfer are still in place, and there are “rigorous processes” that have to be established before the office can function in the way that he wants it to. Appropriate committees have to come together, deliberate, and evaluate the pros and cons before the new policy Gerngross is advocating can become a reality. And he’s met some resistance so far. Some academics, for instance, aren’t concerned that the tech transfer office is losing money, and are content with having the patents on their resumes, he says. But Gerngross believes there’ll be “significant reform” at Dartmouth in a year’s time one way or another.
“I’m not interested in rebranding what we already do,” he says. “I really care about outcome. I really want to change things. I don’t mind being patient and going through the process.”