Scripps’ Young Tech Transfer Boss Seeks to Cut Deals With Industry, Not Just Push Paper
There’s an ambitious young director of technology transfer on the job at The Scripps Research Institute, and if he gets his way, people will soon think differently about how the San Diego research center relates with the business world.
“Historically, people have perceived that Scripps is more or less a subsidiary of a Big Pharma company for licensing purposes, so there’s no real point in licensing,” says Scott Forrest, director of business and technology development at Scripps.
“It’s not a correct perception,” he says.
Forrest, 32, has a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Virginia, and most recently got his tech transfer experience at the University of North Carolina. He joined Scripps in February with a goal of doing a better job of spinning out its renowned biomedical science into startup companies, as well as its potential drug candidates that might someday be commercialized in the wider world. Scripps is clearly pumped about Forrest’s prospects for raising the institution’s tech transfer game. Even though the office doesn’t even have its own website to explain what it has to offer (one is coming soon, I’m told), Forrest’s supervisor raved about him in an online Scripps newsletter posting in July.
“Scott is one of the best life sciences business development professionals that I have ever worked with,” Mark Crowell, vice president for business development at Scripps Research, said in the newsletter post. “He has an incredible technical background and an absolutely spot-on entrepreneurial and business sense. His ability to work with researchers at Scripps and with our corporate and venture capital partners will lead to solid business deals that get our technology out, generate appropriate returns for the institute, and help our partners achieve their business goals. We are extremely lucky to have him.”
Since we at Xconomy are always looking to write about bright ideas with commercial potential coming out of San Diego institutions, I figured this is a guy I should get to know. So I called up Forrest and asked him how Scripps is doing, and about his goals.
At its core, Forrest sees this as a “relationship business.” His goal is to actively help connect scientists with entrepreneurs, investors, and business development pros at pharma and biotech companies that they might not otherwise meet. And there’s plenty of room to improve at this, he says.
For example, tech transfer in the past might have waited for a superstar scientist like Peter Schultz to deliver a cool invention for patenting and licensing, and then hand it off to a big company already known to have an interest. Now, the tech transfer group wants to play a more pro-active role. Forrest says this means it will “roll up its sleeves” and do more to help a researcher form the business plans for a startup around his or her idea, help with raising capital, or make a key introduction to a pharma company that might have a place for such an idea.
“We have a lot of attention paid to us by Big Pharma companies and investors because of our scientific track record, but [in tech transfer] we haven’t always done a good job of building networks and being a source of deals, not just a processor of deals,” Forrest says.
This is all easier said than done. Tech transfer is one of the thorniest jobs you can get in an academic institution. Do a poor job of spinning out technologies into companies, and you get heat from top administrators for not bringing in enough bacon for the institution, and from faculty for not helping them bolster their resumes and making them rich. Drive too hard of a bargain for your faculty and administrators, and the pharma industry and investors will complain about you being an intransigent bureaucrat standing in the way of medical progress, and they’ll look elsewhere. And if you do your job exceptionally well, critics will probably accuse you of selling the institution’s soul, and putting filthy lucre ahead of the nobler goals of teaching and basic research. If you are anybody other than a tech transfer standard bearer like MIT or Stanford, criticism pretty much goes with the territory. (Check this online summary of the growth and controversies at Scripps.)
Possibly because of the sensitive nature of this activity, Scripps doesn’t disclose a lot publicly about how it’s performing. The institution has an annual budget of $324 million for research, staff of 2,800 people, and 225 faculty. Scripps doesn’t publicly disclose data on how much that translates each year into new patent applications, new startup companies, new technology licenses to companies, and annual licensing revenue—at least to the usual depository for that data, the Association of University Technology Managers. But when I asked for some of the numbers, here’s what Forrest had to say:
—Three startup companies emerged in the 12-month period ending in October with ties to Scripps researchers. They are Epic Sciences, Receptos, and Zyngenia. “All three have attracted substantial investment by blue-chip VCs,” Forrest says. He adds that if you go back to 2006, the list of promising startups with strong Scripps ties includes Fate Therapeutics, Sapphire Energy, aTyr Pharma, Proteostasis and Calmune.
—Scripps doesn’t disclose the amount of money it generates from technology licenses. (Even so, the institute did say in its annual report that it generated $476 million in grant and contract revenue in the year ended September 30, 2008, plus another $37 million in what it calls “other revenue and support.”)
—Scripps faculty disclose about 200 to 220 new inventions to the tech transfer office each year, Forrest says.
—The institution files patent applications on about 50 to 75 new inventions per year, Forrest says.
There are reasons for Scripps to come out publicly with such data, such as showing that it puts taxpayer grant support to a practical use. There’s also that matter of dispelling misperceptions 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.”