Exit Interview: Lita Nelsen on MIT Tech Transfer, Startups & Culture

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories examining entrepreneurship on MIT’s campus and beyond.]

MIT’s approach to nurturing entrepreneurship has changed a lot over the past 50 years.

Lita Nelsen has seen it up close—and played a part in its evolution—from her studies there in the 1960s, to her business-school fellowship in the late 1970s, to her 30 years working in MIT’s Technology Licensing Office. She spent the last 23 of those years directing the office, along the way becoming a pillar at MIT and in the tech transfer community nationwide.

Now, her career has come to a close. Last fall, she told administrators she planned to retire this spring. She officially stepped down in April after MIT announced her successor: Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of the Office of Technology Management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jack Turner, associate director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, is serving as interim director until Millar-Nicholson arrives in July.

Nelsen is now a consultant on tech transfer and entrepreneurship issues, and she is also serving on the boards of companies and nonprofits, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Xconomy sat down with Nelsen in March at her (now former) fifth-floor office at 255 Main St. in Cambridge, MA, on the eastern edge of MIT’s campus. She had plenty of knowledge, history, and opinions to share.

Our wide-ranging conversation covered the progression of MIT’s entrepreneurship curriculum and campus resources, the rise of the Boston-Cambridge area as a high-tech industry powerhouse, the prospects for an MIT venture fund, the challenges for university tech transfer offices, the roots of today’s startup culture, and more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Xconomy: How has the culture of entrepreneurship changed in your 30-year career here on campus?

Lita Nelsen: It’s gone from incidental to purposeful, in the sense that companies were spinning out of MIT forever, but certainly going back to the ’50s.

What, I think, is the first technology-based, early-stage venture capital fund anywhere, American Research and Development, was founded between Georges Doriot at Harvard Business School and Karl Compton, who was president of MIT at the time. I don’t know if it was their first investment, but they invested $75,000 in a researcher named Ken Olsen, at MIT. Twenty years ago, everybody in Boston knew he was. He was the founder of Digital Equipment Corp. Although Digital has gone under, it was one of the most successful companies in Massachusetts for decades. I mean, nothing lasts forever.

So companies were spinning out forever. My first job when I graduated from this place was my professor’s spinout company.

X: When was that?

LN: I got my bachelor’s in ’64, my master’s in ’66 in chemical engineering. It was a little company called Amicon, which the brand is still around. It basically helped invent the ultra-filtration field. Then it got acquired by Millipore.

X: I read an article from 1998 that you were quoted in—it sounded like Stanford’s Niels Reimers helped MIT reorganize its patenting and licensing office in 1986 to make it more like Stanford’s model.

LN: Right, he came on a sabbatical year. Basically it was a restart from primarily a legal office to an office filled with people with technology and marketing backgrounds.

X: So you wanted to emphasize the commercialization and industry expertise over the legal expertise?

LN: Right. And so that’s what Stanford did, so it was set up in that model.

I wasn’t the director then in ’86. And then in ’87 we started making the spinouts official rather than just go out the backdoor. That meant we were licensing. And that meant that MIT had to look at its policy of doing this as MIT, rather than private activities.

And so we got our act together, we got our policies together, very conservatively. And we started to do it more officially, take some equity in the companies, allow the faculty to have equity—but still have exclusive licenses.

I guess the first two companies were Immulogic and, I believe, American Superconductor. Immulogic isn’t around anymore, but I think American Superconductor still is.

As we started doing more of it, entrepreneurship is catching… And one of the impacts was on the business school.

I was a Sloan [School of Management] fellow [at MIT] back in ’78-’79. And I was very disappointed because, with the exception of one or two courses, the Sloan School was primarily oriented to Fortune 500 companies and to Wall Street—finance theory, that sort of thing. Just about nothing, one or two courses—Ed Roberts had one—on entrepreneurship.

But as the technology part of MIT started to be known for these companies spinning out and starting to influence even the development of the region, the MBA students started self-selecting to come to MIT for entrepreneurship, technology-based entrepreneurship. And the Sloan School responded, and now … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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