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

9/17/08Follow @xconomy

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UM: I knew this was a great, great research institution. I had friends who were postdocs here, and I knew some of the faculty. But I’ve been overwhelmed by the quality of the science going on here, and how well some of this will eventually translate into product development. It’s a very exciting place.

X: Are there any particular kinds of technologies you’d point to?

UM: There has been a significant focus on molecular diagnostics, both on the genetic level and the proteomic level. We have very concerted efforts here in that field that will generate really interesting opportunities. We also have leaders in the field of immunotherapeutics that have made groundbreaking progress on enhancing T cell therapeutics.

X: What measurements do you use for success in this job?

UM: It’s a good question, it’s one I don’t yet have a full answer for. I’m hesitant to go by the traditional AUTM [Association of University Technology Managers] measurements, in terms of how many patents you’ve filed. Success for us is a continued growth in license revenues, to continue to find new opportunities for licensing. But I think a bigger measure of success may be finding those industry partnerships, really establishing mechanisms where our basic research will find a home on a programmatic basis.

X: How would you describe the culture here, or attitude toward commercial partners?

UM: As is typical in an academic environment, it’s mixed. We have a number of researchers I work with who are very enthusiastic. Obviously, we have to structure these type of collaborations with keeping in mind that we don’t go outside the limits of our mission. As long as we bring in research partners who understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and give us the academic freedom we want to publish our papers and continue doing our research, then industry partnerships will be welcomed here.

X: What kind of misperceptions are out there in the community about this place and how it approaches tech transfer?

UM: The Hutchinson Center doesn’t have a long history of tech transfer. Before Spencer (Lemons, the predecessor) came, I don’t think it had received a great deal of attention. There had been some big successes beforehand, but as a program, it hadn’t expanded much. So we walked in where the program had been established, and now we’re in a nice position where we can expand it. I think the outside community is hoping to see a consistent pattern that the Hutch is willing to work with companies on certain projects.

X: How would you describe the relationship with the UW, in particular since they’ve added Linden Rhoads there now?

UM: Linden is a great addition, I’m thrilled she got hired. She’s very entrepreneurial. She understands the startup process very well. I’m looking forward to working together. I think we’re going to find more opportunities, because there are great synergies between our institutions.

X: Which companies would you point to that have a good chance to improve on the Hutch’s image? Linden said in our last interview that “Success begets success.” So when people see success stories they get motivated to try it themselves. What are some examples here that could provide a spark?

UM: I think Ikaria is an amazing story. They’re starting several Phase IIs this fall. Bob Nelsen said it could be one of the bigger IPOs you’ll ever see if they go that route. So Ikaria is something we’re very proud of, and our researchers recognize that’s a very interesting story. It’s true that some of our other researchers who are entrepreneurial minded are going to [founder] Mark Roth and learning from his experience. That’s exactly true. The more people we have inside with a positive experience, the more likely we are to see more of it happen.

X: Do you still run into people who think industry are the bad guys and that they want nothing to do with them?

UM: Yeah, and it’s not my job to change their mind about that. Certain research projects here lend themselves better to industry projects than others. Certain scientists lend themselves better to industry partnerships than others. What we’d like to do is show success, and show we can do positive collaborative agreements, where we are benefitting and not selling ourselves out, so to speak. We maintain our academic freedom, once we show that, we’ll see more researchers having some interest in participating. We’ve got plenty of work to do, we don’t have to make everybody happy. You can’t walk into an institution and expect to change the culture. I’d rather go on quietly and have some successes, and keep building on it.

X: Are there any practices you’ve brought here from M.D. Anderson that have made a difference?

UM: At Anderson there was a lot of focus in the drug therapeutic side, of keeping compounds in-house and doing more of the preclinical development work in-house. They had capabilities to do that at M.D. Anderson, which is very nice and very powerful. We’ve had some discussions here about the possibility of finding avenues where we can take early discoveries, or early hits, and find ways where we could potentially carry them a little further down the development pipe before we look for development partners.

X: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in this job, coming here?

UM: It was patience. I was told it takes a minimum of six months to understand the basics of how things work at the Hutch. I really took that to heart. I don’t think six months is enough time. We’re at the point where we’re starting to get comfortable understanding some of the things going on here. I think it’s patience, and figuring out how we fit in here and how we can work with our scientists in a positive manner. They need some time to get to know you, and you need to take some time to develop the relationship. Patience is a big thing.

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