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Xconomy Award Winner Lita Nelsen Reflects on a Career in Tech Transfer: Q&A

Xconomy Boston — 

When Lita Nelsen first started working at MIT’s Technology Licensing Office (TLO) over 30 years ago, Kendall Square was home to only a few biotech companies, and spinning out new startups from MIT was more of an incidental thing (as she told Xconomy last year).

But that changed drastically during Nelsen’s time there (including more than 20 years as the head of the office), with the rapid rise of entrepreneurship at MIT and venture capital in Boston. Soon Kendall Square was transformed into the hotbed of innovation it is today.

Nelsen and her office played a significant role in this, brokering many deals between MIT and industry that have driven the creation of a wide range of new technologies and companies. Along the way, she and her team became national leaders in university tech transfer. For this work, Nelsen received an Xconomy Lifetime Achievement Award (pictured) last week at our inaugural Awards Gala.

Since her retirement from MIT last year, Nelsen has been consulting for universities and companies around the world. She spoke with me a few days before the gala, reflecting on her career on the frontlines of tech and biotech innovation. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s the biggest thing you learned during your career in tech transfer?

Lita Nelsen: I learned the whole profession. I didn’t know anything about it when I went into it. One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of the very upper administration of the university to understand the process [of tech transfer] and to support it. More than support it, celebrate it. MIT was very good at that, because they weren’t expecting to make money. We weren’t some little administrative office. We were part of the whole ecosystem that has evolved into one of the great entrepreneurial ecosystems. But that didn’t happen overnight.

X: What piece of advice would you give budding entrepreneurs who want to make an impact?

LN: Get to know your technology licensing office [if you’re a university researcher or student]. Don’t fight with the university, work with it, because it can offer you a lot. Not so much money as connections, science, the imprimatur of famous scientists who are working on your technology. If the tech transfer offices do it well, [they can provide] connections to the venture capital and angel investment communities.

X: What was the most surprising thing that happened in your career?

LN: I don’t want to get into specifics, but you never can tell which [technologies] are going to go hot. You can’t pick the winners. We tried to pick the sure losers and not invest in them. But there’s so much between good science and an early-stage patent, and whether the technology succeeds in the marketplace. You never can tell. That’s probably the most surprising thing—the ones that hit big. Who the hell would have known?

X: What do you attribute your success in tech transfer to?

LN: One is the realistic expectation of upper management, coupled with very consistent, well-thought-out and simple policies and rules on what we could and couldn’t do with conflicts of interest, etc. I could have my people be creative within a few sensible rules, rather than have every deal go through a committee. Second, obviously, is the quality of the science that MIT produces. Third, we’re in Kendall Square. I was able to hire very good people and keep them for decades, which was marvelous, because what I personally found was that your learning curve doesn’t plateau in two, three, or five years. Depth of experience becomes very important. I really had good people. And it’s MIT. Brand counts a lot.

X: Any regrets? Is there something you would do differently if you could do it all over again?

LN: I’ve been very fortunate. There are little things you think you could have done better. But no regrets. I had planned, when I joined [the MIT TLO office] to stay about four years because four years is about the time, in my previous 20 years of work, when I’d get bored or frustrated. I planned on a four-year gig and stayed 30 years.

I think another element is, the national tech transfer offices—the people who are in them—are a close community. We’re friends, in addition to colleagues. We teach each other. We benchmark against each other. And I’m very good friends with, for example, Kathy Ku [executive director of Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing], which everybody would think would be a competitor, but instead we saw ourselves as collaborators. That’s been one of the strengths and personal satisfactions of my time.

Stay tuned for more profiles and interviews with the 2017 Xconomy Award winners over the coming weeks.