Alignment of purpose: Exploring ways to create effective partnerships between TTOS and foundations
At the 2015 Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) annual conference held last month in New Orleans, FasterCures co-hosted with JDRF a Special Interest Group session, “Disease-Focused Foundations and the University TTO: Alignment of Purpose.” The session brought together representatives from foundations, patient groups, and university technology transfer offices (TTOs) for a lively and interactive conversation about how patient foundations and TTOs can better engage to help ensure that promising research continues to move forward.
Participants had wide-ranging ideas about how TTOs and foundations can create more effective partnerships. Many suggestions focused on how to better utilize and integrate the non-financial resources of foundations into the technology transfer process, such as foundations’ networks and subject matter expertise. Several ideas were presented during the discussion, and three are highlighted below:
- Host “investor” days: Participants noted that many patient foundations are well positioned to connect researchers with potential investors. There was widespread acknowledgement that TTOs are continually asked to do more with less, and it can be challenging to identify the right licensing opportunity for a particular technology given the wide variation of projects that cross a licensing officer’s desk. By hosting an investor day that brings together researchers with potential investors or licensees in that same field, promising and long-lasting relationships can be established.
- Educational opportunities: One participant noted that while there is much discussion around helping TTOs identify licensees of promising technology, another equally valuable way to provide support would be to “help us make sure the research is worthy of the leads.” For example, individual researchers could greatly benefit from more instruction around what is required from a regulatory perspective to bring drugs from discovery to development. If regulatory considerations aren’t properly taken into account, promising research may not be pursued, or may require additional, costly investments that could have been avoided if regulatory requirements were understood from the outset. One novel idea put forth was that foundations require grant recipients to take a “Regulatory 101” course as a condition of receiving funding.
- Timely identification and protection of inventions: Participants also discussed the importance of identifying and disclosing inventions in a timely manner so that they can be evaluated early. One participant noted that many patient groups request or require progress reports, and that sometimes these reports may reflect an invention that an individual investigator did not identify to the TTO. Being ready to identify and communicate that invention to the TTO could help protect that technology for future investments.
Another licensing officer was quick to point out that encouraging more disclosures will only be beneficial if universities can afford to file patent applications. It is impossible to know, especially with early-stage research, what patents will be truly valuable, and difficult decisions have to be made to meet budgetary constraints. Unfortunately, the decision about whether to file a patent application must be made very early in the process, when it is difficult to predict the commercial viability of an invention. Patient foundations can assist TTOs by funding or covering the costs of filing patent applications. By de-risking this investment, even for inventions not funded by the foundation, patient groups can help foster more disclosures and, potentially, more innovation.
Other suggestions centered on how patient groups could be a valuable source of feedback about the significance of early-stage research proposals. Other insight, including what the competitive landscape in a particular field of research looks like, can be valuable to both TTOs and faculty. There was a general theme of encouraging more frequent and open communication.
Regardless of the precise mechanism, it is clear that there is enthusiasm about the untapped potential that exists in university-patient foundation partnerships. At FasterCures, we hope to continue to work with both groups to build off this momentum and help each side find ways to more effectively engage.
For more information on this topic and the work FasterCures is doing, view our recent report, “University-Foundation Relations: From Transactional to Transformative Partnerships.”