The Innovation Licensing Internship Program: Hands-on Experience in Commercializing Academic Research


Academic research is a vital source of novel technologies that improve our lives. Over 9 million people have been prescribed the blockbuster anti-seizure drug Lyrica, discovered at Northwestern University in 1989((Robbins, R. Why isn’t Harvard getting rich off its scientific research? STAT. December 21, 2015.))((Lyrica FAQs. Accessed 1/17/2018.)). Other innovations originating from university research (Gatorade, X-rays)((Applied research deserves Nobel prizes. Nature Materials 2010; 9: 1.)) became so widespread in use that they spawned the development of new products beyond the original invention. For graduate students and postdocs interested in helping translate research discoveries from bench to consumer, the Partners HealthCare Innovation Licensing Internship Program introduces the fundamentals of commercializing academic research discoveries. The program provides interns the opportunity to facilitate research translation starting from the beginning — the investigator’s disclosure of a research discovery — up to the negotiation of an agreement with a company to further develop the invention into a commercial product. Along the way, interns gain valuable experience and skills in marketing technologies, assessing the competitive landscape of potential products, protecting intellectual property, and drafting and negotiating agreements.

Since the inception of the licensing intern program in the summer of 2016, 10 number interns have completed the program. Partners Innovation accepts applicants from a variety of programs and degrees in addition to science graduate degree holders, including students of finance, law, medicine, and business. These interns have gone on to pursue a number of interesting careers in various industries, including pharmaceutical, health IT software, law, and medical device companies. For those interested in pursuing a career in technology transfer, completing an internship is a valuable experience; nearly half of the licensing managers at Partners Innovation got started in the field through an internship at a tech transfer office, typically at their graduate student institution.

How do interns contribute to Innovation’s mission of commercializing academic research discoveries? To understand the intern experience, it first helps to understand that Innovation strives to fulfill a larger function than to simply transfer technology from university to industry. The licensing team plays a critical role from the earliest stages of engaging with the inventor all the way to managing relationships with existing licensees, in a process that looks like this:

  • Outreach and engagement with inventors
  • Protect and develop intellectual property
  • Market and commercialize intellectual property
  • Negotiate agreements (licenses, sponsored research agreements) with companies
  • Strengthen and maintain industry relationships

Interns are given the opportunity to contribute to the entire commercialization pathway. For instance, I’ve analyzed the patentability and commercial potential of disclosed inventions, communicated with inventors about their continued research progress, reached out to companies to market Partners technologies, and participated in license negotiations. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with senior members of a start-up company interested in licensing Partners technology, and I’ve gotten the chance to meet and chat with members of the Partners licensing team to learn about their backgrounds and career pathways–conversations that I’ve found helpful for my own career development.

The spark for my interest in pursuing technology commercialization grew out of my current research at Tufts University, where I’m running a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of an educational intervention in improving treatment decision-making in chronic kidney disease patients. The intervention is a decision-aid (a web-based program that patients can watch at home or in the clinic) that explains treatment options for kidney failure, including benefits and risks. This program, developed by a Chicago-based company, is a simple solution to improve patient autonomy and satisfaction with the decisions they make about their medical care. While working with patients, I began to appreciate the significant impact that life sciences research can make on the end user, and decided I wanted to help translate academic research into clinical use. I already had the basic science research experience — during my Ph.D. I developed chemical probes to functionally identify cysteine protease and ligase enzymes — but I needed to fill in gaps in my knowledge to understand the translational process. Through this internship, I’ve learned how a technology transfer office bridges the gap from university to company, and how Innovation’s mission of commercializing research incrementally impacts and improves our lives. Plus, I’m excited to see some of the technologies we’ve licensed make their way to patients in the future.

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