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Taking Charge of Tech Transfer at the “Hutch”: Q&A With Ulrich Mueller

Linden Rhoads of the University of Washington isn’t the only person in town trying to push a powerhouse research institution to become a hotbed for startups. Ulrich Mueller joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle almost a year ago to be its vice president for industry relations and technology transfer. His mission: Forge more collaborations with the biotech and pharmaceutical industry without selling the institution’s soul.

The “Hutch,” as it is known, is one of the world’s leading biomedical research centers, with 2,844 employees and an annual research budget of more than $308 million in fiscal 2009. Yet it doesn’t tend to spin off companies like its peers around the country. One startup emerged from the Hutch in 2006, while the Mayo Clinic spun off nine, Massachusetts General Hospital created eight, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center gave rise to two new companies, according to an annual survey by the Association of University Technology Managers.

Mueller previously had been managing director of technology transfer at M.D. Anderson in Houston. He has a doctorate in cell and molecular biology from Baylor University, so he can speak the language of the lab. He also was closely involved with forming two startup companies there, so he has learned how the venture capital game is played. I sat down with him at his office to ask how about what he aims to accomplish at the Hutch.

Xconomy: What kind of situation did you inherit here in terms of technology transfer? What did the lay of the land look like?

Ulrich Mueller: My predecessor did a great job of really setting up a good office and good practices as far as looking at and evaluating technologies being developed here. A real focus had been on finding startup opportunities, and obviously we’ve had some successes there with Ikaria and Apoptos. So it was very nice for me to walk in to an office that was well set up.

X: What was really your mandate when you came in, from Lee Hartwell (the center’s president, and a Nobel Prize-winning cancer biologist)?

UM: Both Lee and our board are really interested in seeing us continue to expand our activities. They want continued consistency in terms of helping develop technologies, and really bringing ways to expand new opportunities for our scientists, potentially through interesting new industry collaborations. It’s not just about what we can out-license, or build up and out-license to companies, or maybe even do startups every now and then when we find the right opportunity. It’s also about where we may be able to bring in technologies from companies to help some of our research programs.

X: Does that mean bringing in more sponsored research dollars from companies?

UM: Yes, in some cases. Where companies are interested in developing certain capabilities in, say, molecular diagnostics, where we have a good discovery engine. Where can we set up really collaborative, sponsored research agreements where they would fund some of that work and potentially get rights to developing products from that work.

X: What’s the biggest challenge in this job? What do you need to improve around here?

UM: A lot of what we do is an educational process for both sides. We have a lot of scientists who are very well-versed in entrepreneurial activity, but a lot of other scientists aren’t very familiar with it, and don’t understand the potential value of finding commercial partnerships. Part of our job is to work with the faculty and find the right opportunities. Not to the point of worrying about patenting every single discovery here, but finding those opportunities where working with a commercial partner makes sense.

On the outside, a lot of people don’t understand what’s being done here at the Hutch. One of the things we’re doing in this office is developing relationships with local biotech companies and the investing community, and also some of the larger groups on the West Coast and East Coast, and really providing communication on the type of things we’re doing. Maybe they’ll be interested in investing or a strategic partnership.

X: What’s surprised you here, since you’ve had a year to look under the hood? … Next Page »

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