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

Xconomy Seattle — 

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?

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.