Q&A With Linden Rhoads: UW TechTransfer Leader Brings VC Revolution to Campus (Part 2)

2/11/09Follow @xconomy

Yesterday, we shared the first part of a conversation with Linden Rhoads, the University of Washington’s tech transfer boss. She talked about how she’s making the office hustle a lot more, in particular by brokering meetings between faculty and venture capitalists to brainstorm about the best research ideas with commercial potential.

Today, in Part Two, Rhoads talks more about how this is supposed to work in practice, and a little bit about what life is like at a huge institution after spending her career in startups. Here are edited excerpts.

Xconomy: How will you measure success in your first year?

Linden Rhoads: We are still measuring success, by all the typical metrics. But we’re also looking at the number of resumes that our venture capitalists send to department chairs. We’re looking at the number of faculty candidates that we helped recruit, or for whom we arranged meetings. We’re looking at the number of VCs and industry executives that we introduced to UW researchers, even outside of a licensing agreement. We’re tracking all of that.

X: When you first started, you said you were having a lot of meetings with Bay Area VC’s and the local VCs. What came out of those meetings?

LR: For one thing, in March, we’re going to have our first half-day retreat advisory board meeting since I joined. We’re going to have an entirely reconstituted advisory board that has very significant venture capital representation. This office will be looked on, given our new mandate for ourselves, as a vehicle for increasing the relevance of the university to the region. The members of the advisory board will see themselves as personally responsible for helping to see that an increasing number of researchers at the university are focused on translational research. The breakout topics at that meeting will be all about how to help us do that.

We’re seeing many more venture capitalists on campus now than I’ve ever seen before. It’s as staggering, in the case of some departments, as a 10-to-1 difference in terms of numbers of visits.

You’re obviously familiar with Janis (Machala). I think it would be fair to say before I recruited Janis, this university has never had anything like the Rolodex that I brought, or that she brought, or that the two of us collectively have brought. Or her capability. She’s just a very high-bandwidth individual who has tremendous capacity for coaching, and mentoring would-be entrepreneurs. She has a track record that engenders tremendous good will, and the university is benefitting from that work.

X: What kind of reception are you getting culturally? I know there are some people who say the university has a pure-research mentality that says business is full of a bunch of bad guys.

LR: I think there are still a few holdouts who wish we could put the genie back in the bottle. They wish, ‘Why won’t researchers just go back to being pure of heart?’ You know what? That really amounts to very few people anymore. Most people here are increasingly sophisticated about the fact that there are very few bright lines anymore between industry and academic research. We’re in a much more ambiguous place today. Certainly, with researchers who work to introduce new therapies, we all have to be incredibly careful to make sure there is no conflict of interest that would cause anybody to influence their research results. That’s obvious. The School of Medicine couldn’t be more careful about that. But everyone understands that increasingly you have university researchers aware of other industrial research out there, and that’s a good thing. I think there’s a lot of excitement out there around the idea that our researchers could work more closely with industry and be more aware of what they’re doing as well. We find a lot of receptivity.

X: Does it help at all that researchers are afraid about what’s happened to NIH and NSF funding, and a lot of researchers are looking around for somebody to fund their work?

LR: I remain pretty optimistic that with NIH and NSF, we’ll see good funding there.

X: From the stimulus package?

LR: From the stimulus, and just Democratic Party appreciation for science and what it can accomplish. This is an administration that understands we need to innovate our way out of some of our nation’s problems. I just went to the inauguration, and had a great time.

X: That raises one question I actually wanted to ask. Are you having fun?

LR: I really am. I am really admiring of our researchers’ commitment to what they do. I worked in high-tech, and was guilty of being like many software and Internet entrepreneurs who started early in their 20s. We feel entitled to make a whole lot of money, just because. There isn’t a lot of humility in that. It’s a relentless pursuit of personal aggrandizement, and monetary reward. To meet some of our life sciences researchers, who are M.D./Ph.D.s who have all the same charisma and force of personality. Sometimes we stereotype them as nerds, or think they’re doing it because they don’t have alternatives.

What I have found is these are people with all the force of personality and charisma that would have allowed them to have very senior jobs in industry if that’s what they wanted, getting paid many times more than they are now, along with equity participation in the companies they work for. These are people who win millions of dollars from the NIH, year after year. They know how to win the support of their peers. They get through human subjects committees. It’s very onerous regulation. They are very organized, and keep large teams of people working together very well. They have all these incredible skills they could easily put to use for someone else in some other capacity, if all they cared about was making money. The fact is they don’t. It may sound incredibly corny, but they are noble and virtuous people. They really care a lot about bringing new therapies to the world. It feels good to support that.

X: You’ve also got a lot of experience in small, nimble organizations, and now you’re in this enormous institution. How’s that adjustment going?

LR: Certainly, you have to be sensitive. There are many missions and mandates driving researchers here, and the leadership here, especially in a tough financing climate. You’re not going to enjoy 100 percent mindshare. You aren’t going to get people to dedicate their time entirely to your ideas and priorities, that’s to be expected. I’ve actually been surprised at how much can get done quickly here when there are visionary leaders pushing their ideas forward, and you have receptive, like-minded peers. The leadership of this department, and the university as a whole, are really oriented around the idea of increasing the university’s relevance to the community and the region, and to cementing our position as America’s premier public research university.

X: You made a reference earlier to how universities are separating themselves into tiers. Is UW in that top tier?

LR: We certainly are, when you think about many of our departments, and on the whole, in terms of the dollars we bring in.

X: But even globally, in terms of the quality of work that’s being done here. Harvard, Stanford, etc. You think UW is in that top tier?

LR: Definitely. We are, and we are growing in stature. The question now is whether we are going to do the things as a university that will cement this position and increase it. The big part of it is turning the office of technology transfer into a world-class center for commercialization that’s known around the country and that is a big part of the reason why researchers come here in the first place. That’s our vision, and it’s a big vision.

X: What about technologies when you look around here? I can imagine you get a pretty broad exposure to a variety of things coming up here. Has anything surprised you?

LR: I think the cleantech project (with solar cells) is really promising. Alex Jen’s work, he’s our chairman of materials science. I think he’s a volcano, a really prolific researcher, churning out incredibly important work. Ed Lazowska’s efforts in the area of what he calls e-science, I think of it as computationally intensive science, are part of what will make this university over the next dozen years a very productive place in terms of relevant innovation. When you think of David Baker and what he’s doing with protein folding, and distributed science. I call it democratic science, with a little “d,” that will enable us to harness all of our efforts. That’s the type of project we want to see more of.

Then there are so many projects within the School of Medicine, too numerous to name, that could significantly impact the health of Americans and Washingtonians. I’m really impressed with the work that Jim Stout is doing with respect to asthma and pediatric anesthesia. We have a pair of researchers working on an oral form of testosterone, which today can only be injected or applied topically. There’s a lot of good work being done.

X: What are your goals for 2009 and beyond?

LR: My goals for now are to put the right people in place, and some of the right programs in place, so we can mature into a world-class commercialization organization and a reason why researchers come here.

X: Do the venture capitalists embrace this?

LR: They’re really excited. I’ve made some changes on the licensing front that demonstrate good faith. Their participation and assistance will be rewarded with responsiveness and real-world flexibility.

I’ll give an example. Many tech transfer offices have a bright line rule that says they won’t prospectively license anything, won’t forward-license. What that means to them is even in a case when a UW researcher is starting a company around their research, in which they will continue to do similar research here at the university with their grad students, we tend to say to the VCs, here’s the deal: The company, of which the researcher is a part, can license the technology up to the point it exists today. But anything they do going forward here, we could never, heaven forbid, prospectively license that. So you’ll have to come back and license it at another time and place when it is disclosed and understood.

Of course, this doesn’t give a lot of comfort to any venture capitalist or investor or corporate licensee, who is thinking about stepping up to the plate and investing millions of dollars into development of a technology or therapy. Then we attempt to talk them out of a heart attack, saying ‘Don’t worry, we’ll let you be the first in line to negotiate for that, or ‘We’ll do it in good faith.’ We also create the potential for a researcher to be in a difficult position. Think about it, the researcher now has helped start a company, and chances are he’s a scientific advisor. He’s allowed to give 20 percent of his time to the company, maybe a day each week, so the company hires 20 biologists to work on things, it’s hard to say when the researcher is going back and forth to the lab, it’s really hard to say where the intellectual property originated. It could have been here at the university, or it could have been at the startup. There’s a revolving door.

So by saying we won’t forward-license anything, and insisting we negotiate a new license, we create a difficult position for the researcher. We create consternation for the company by saying they will have to prove somehow that the innovation didn’t come out of the university. So I think it’s very reasonable to eliminate that entire line of inquiry, and not worry about which side of the revolving door it came from, by licensing a project versus a discrete patent application. I think it’s completely fair and appropriate to say ‘You know what, we’re licensing this project. We can come up with some reasonable outer bounds, maybe a period of years, or everything discovered under a certain research grant, up to this set of possible research outcomes, and all of it is in the license.”’ So we don’t actually care at this point, because it’s licensed to you anyway, whether it comes from the university or the company. The researcher is encouraged to be as helpful to you as an investor as they possibly can be, because we have licensed this technology to the company. The university has a tremendous vested interest in it being successful. The last thing we want to do is cause stress or anxiety. That’s a position that VCs and attorneys in the area have let me know they are thrilled to hear.

X: Do any other universities do this?

LR: I really couldn’t say. I think for the most part, no. Universities are generally really hard to work with.

X: So are people in the Bay Area starting to pay more notice to what’s going on here? Will you attract a more broad diversity of Silicon Valley VCs here?

LR: Definitely. Janis and I are phoning them and setting up meetings there and here. We see a lot more attention. And you’re not just seeing Bay Area VCs, but Boston VCs and New York VCs, and frankly, we’re also looking outside the country.

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