A Call for Public Investment and Service in Technology Transfer

VideaHealth Fellow Project Scope_060719

When I was young(er) and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and what kind of education I would need, I knew that I did not want the product of my labor to end up in a journal on a shelf. I wanted action and results from my efforts, to uphold the autonomy of individuals. I had always been interested in medical research. However, it is a common refrain that academic research concludes with the fact that more research is needed. I wanted something that would have a more direct route to helping people; I found it in helping investigators move their research into the commercial sector, into the hands of others, and ultimately into the hands of physicians and patients. Technology acceleration and commercial translation is the perfect fit for this.

Congress and the American public invest roughly $30 billion each year in life sciences research, and yet discoveries often sit on a shelf, lost in translation. Private capital does not reach into academic research institutions to find opportunities; it’s too risky. Prestigious research sponsors traditionally focus on novelty and academic credentials such as publication citations. There is a gap in funding for work aimed at proving that an experiment can be reproduced, that the result can be mass produced, and that it represents a viable opportunity for private investment to create an actual product.

Academic investigators are trained in hypothesis-driven, discovery-based research. They are not trained in business development; nor are they trained in how to identify risks involved in developing a technology for commercial distribution. Furthermore, although they may be aware of intellectual property as the basis for protecting discoveries, they are often unaware of all the additional work and expertise that is needed to bring their discoveries to market.

Finally, it can be difficult for academic researchers to learn about the commercialization processes. Investigators often do not have the exposure or knowledge to assess potential partners and opportunities. Technology transfer offices often focus on licensing the investigators’ inventions to recover the initial costs of discovery; determining the work that is required to further develop the technology as a commercial opportunity is not always their focus. As a result, the tenacity of individual investigators and their luck are often the greatest determinants of whether technologies are translated into the commercial realm, to one day become available to physicians and patients as viable solutions to their problems.

These gaps in technology transfer exist across the country and they exist in Boston. Despite the rich ecosystem in Boston, the gaps exist as they do elsewhere, because they are the consequence of commercial realities and traditional academic culture. Given the billions of dollars invested each year by Congress and the American public, and the need for innovation to serve as a significant engine of economic growth, we should not rely solely on the luck and tenacity of individual investigators to achieve greater outcomes from this public investment. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect their success given the highly complex and regulated world in which they operate. To ensure a sustainable model for economic growth, we need infrastructure that creates a consistent and reliable means by which the enormous public investment in research can be realized as commercial opportunities and products.

The commercialization process requires input from many different partners and there are numerous opportunities for innovation and collaboration in the Boston area. The Boston Biomedical Innovation Center serves to provide this infrastructure to fourteen academic medical centers and universities in the area. Funding is provided for proof-of-concept studies and validation studies. Just as importantly however, principal advising services, project management, entrepreneurial skills development workshops, and access to partners in the local community and relevant Federal agencies are available. Money alone does not bridge the valley of death; access and knowledge are needed through trusted partnerships and collaboration.

For more information about B-BIC and the NIH Centers for Accelerated Innovation, see www.b-bic.org.

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