Profile: Technology Transfer
Okay. So Brian Kraft, technology licensing associate at Washington State University gave me a very detailed explanation of what exactly technology transfer is, but I think I can sum it up pretty succinctly.
Technology transfer: legally transferring the rights from things/products discovered in a university lab to an outside, for-profit company.
So, as I’m sure you can imagine, universities hire people to act as liaisons, or agents, between the researcher and the company wanting to sell and/or develop their invention. Kraft is one of these people. (I wonder if he introduces himself to people as Agent Kraft?)
Besides keeping the world safe for the matrix, Kraft has a pretty diverse job, he said. His goal is to find markets for university inventions. He also serves as an intellectual property expert and contracting expert for the university, which involves talking to graduate students and community members or dealing with faculty ownership disputes or research contract negotiations.
Kraft’s day to day life can be really variable, he said. For example:
“This morning I was reading about treated tree bark and its potential use as a peat moss substitute for growing plants in order to settle an intellectual property ownership dispute between a faculty member and a local small business. I was interrupted from this by a call from one of our attorneys, informing me that a patent had just been allowed on a hydrogen storage technology and that we needed to draft an additional claim set for the commercially relevant implementation. I knocked that out then pivoted to begin reading about the emerging market for scheduling software that builds crew rosters based on fatigue models for a meeting tomorrow morning focused on the financial terms of a license agreement for a patent in the area that WSU has filed. I then received an email from a faculty member in civil engineering who has developed a method to enhance the post demolition CO2 uptake of concrete…now I get to read about cap and trade and how that would affect the concrete industry. (Notice how I never got back to the tree bark.)”
Whew. He said if he really needs to focus on one thing, he has to close his email and unplug the phone.
Kraft knew he wanted to do something besides academia near the end of his PhD work at Indiana University. (From the same group that I work in, actually. I think I sit at his old desk.) He took a post-doc position at Los Alamos just to try out the national lab thing, but didn’t really get into that either. He picked up a copy of Alternative Careers in Science (sound familiar?), and found out technology transfer as a career.
When Kraft’s wife Aurora Clark (also a chemist and also from the same research group at IU) got hired at Washington State as a professor, they happened to be re-vamping their technology transfer the department and were hiring. So Kraft got a job. And he’s quite happy with the way things have worked out.
“It was the right move for me,” he said. “I still consider my path as evolving, but I do not regret leaving the lab.”
For others looking to get into the technology transfer business, Kraft suggests trying an internship in your university’s technology transfer office.
“Another direction is to ask if your adviser is working on any patents or commercially valuable projects and ask to serve as their liaison to the technology transfer office. I work with a lot of graduate students,” he said.
But he also warns that the job is not for everyone.
“This job has a pretty high turnover rate. The turnover rate in part, reflects the difficulty of the job,” Kraft said. “You have to be a good communicator, have a thick skin and a willingness to navigate these disparate motivators to find common ground.”
And even though there is high turnover, there aren’t that many jobs available.
“Technology transfer offices are chronically under-resourced. It’s my view that it is a function that does not fit particularly well within the traditional university and as a result there is a limited investment,” he said.
Still he said, there are good parts to the job.
“The upside is that the work is varied, both in topic and action. You’re close to the research and you get to directly participate in the emergence of new technology,” Kraft said. “It’s pretty satisfying when you get to see products launched and companies funded.”