Scripps’ Young Tech Transfer Boss Seeks to Cut Deals With Industry, Not Just Push Paper
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people have that all the best ideas are already spoken for by Big Pharma companies like Pfizer, which has a $100 million, five-year sponsored research agreement with Scripps.
It’s true that Pfizer is an important partner to the institute, but Forrest wanted to emphasize it’s not the only place where Scripps’ innovations can be commercialized. The world’s largest pharmaceutical company has a “time-limited option” on certain intellectual property at Scripps, but that leaves plenty of room for other organizations to find things with commercial potential, he says. Sometimes the technology is at too early of a stage for Pfizer, or doesn’t fit in the company’s portfolio. One recent example comes from the lab of Scripps researcher Sheng Ding, who discovered a way to make it much cheaper and easier to produce stem cells for drug discovery—a breakthrough now under development at Fate Therapeutics.
One of the clear goals of the office, Forrest says, is to serve as a source of revenue for the institution beyond its bread-and-butter federal research grants. The best way to do that is to find a proper home for the idea, whether that’s at a startup company or in the pipeline of a large pharma company. If this is done right, it can help with recruiting and retaining top faculty, who often care about more than just getting their work published in the top journals, Forrest says.
How is Scripps organized to accomplish this goal? Forrest described how the office is set up with three core competencies—business, science, and law. Most academic institutions rely on outside patent lawyers to help with patent strategy and filing, but Scripps feels it can save money and work efficiently by having four full-time patent attorneys in house at tech transfer, plus a few more attorneys who specialize in business development contracts, Forrest says. The rest of the office has another 10 people—many with scientific backgrounds—who handle business development deals, Forrest says.
Being able to speak the same language as the scientists, and ask good questions, is a key part of being successful at the job, Forrest says. But then comes the networking part. The way to do that, Forrest says, is to avoid getting holed up in the office doing contracts all the time, and doing more than attending the usual conferences to meet people.
That means going a step further, by doing outreach with postdocs at Scripps that are curious about industry, and with business students at UC San Diego who might want to stake out careers in biotech. They are in the same age bracket as Forrest, so that can’t hurt when he tries to build rapport. He can offer them some insight into a world they don’t learn about in graduate school. And when they go on to take jobs in big companies around the country, it will be a lot easier for Forrest and Scripps to pick up the phone and call the right person inside a big company when it comes time to spin out new technologies.
Obviously, this isn’t the kind of thing that is expected to pay dividends next quarter or necessarily next year. It’s a lot longer-term vision for improving technology transfer, and making an impact on the world, Forrest says.
“We’re taking a more sophisticated, involved approach to building networks,” Forrest says. “This is a relationship driven business. This is a long-term approach.”