Harvard’s Guru of Tech Transfer: More Seed Funding, Industry Deals Afoot—and the Social Mission is Key

Harvard has taken a bit of a bashing over the years on the tech transfer front. After all, MIT, the champion of university technology transfer and licensing, is right down the river, and at least some business leaders and alumni feel the school should be doing more to match its neighbor in commercializing its pioneering research.

Isaac Kohlberg agrees—and he’s on it. Kohlberg, whose official title is senior associate provost and chief technology development officer, heads Harvard’s Office of Economic Development. In just two full years on the job, he has worked to overhaul almost everything about the office, from its staff to its organization. He’s helped grow industry-sponsored research for the university at a 70-percent annual rate or higher, and has put in place several changes—with more in the wings—to up the dollars Harvard takes in from royalties and licensing deals.

But, as you’ll see, the point of his actions isn’t simply to bring in dollars to an already flush institution. (Harvard’s endowment, at $35 billion and rising, is the nation’s largest.) It’s also about doing more to move Harvard innovations—chiefly in the medical arena—out into the world where they can help people in developing nations, and Kohlberg is willing to do royalty-free deals to bring that about.

“That’s a major piece of our strategy and our mission,” Kohlberg said of this loftier goal, which isn’t exactly common in technology licensing offices, when I visited him earlier this week at his Harvard Square office to learn more about his plans. Turns out, he has a lot of them—and in fact, he’s already set in motion far more than I had realized. It typically takes years for the seeds of tech transfer to bear fruit, so it’ll be a while before Harvard catches up to MIT in its tech transfer efforts. But it seems likely the gap will soon be narrowing, if it hasn’t already.

Kohlberg came to Harvard as a change agent in summer 2005 after turning around technology transfer activities at Tel Aviv University in Israel and building New York University’s efforts almost from scratch. But he says it was really his experience in Israel that shaped much of what he is doing at Harvard. Israeli research institutions, he says, pioneered tech transfer in the 1950s, back when there was really only one major effort at a U.S. university, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation associated with the University of Wisconsin. (The blood thinner Warfarin, also known as Coumadin, was originally developed under the foundation’s sponsorship—and so was Vitamin D.) It wasn’t until 1980, when passage of the Bayh-Dole act allowed U.S. universities to keep the IP rights to technology spawned from federally funded research, that tech transfer efforts really took off in the U.S., he says.

Kohlberg was recruited to Harvard in 2005 by then president Larry Summers and current provost Steven Hyman. He got right to work overhauling operations, bringing two tech transfer offices—one at Harvard Medical School, and one on the main campus—into a single university-wide program. He then reoriented the entire professional staff, which had previously been focused on technology licensing, to full-blown business development. To that end, Kohlberg says, “We have hired a new team of directors of business development” whose job is to engage university faculty and outside firms to find, nurture, and develop research for commercialization, as well as to license existing technologies. And to symbolize this broader, more active mission, he changed the name of the organization itself—from the Office of Technology Licensing to the Office of Technology Development.

The office was reorganized according to areas of practice. Life sciences, the primary focus, has five full-time directors of business development, three based at the medical school in Boston and two in Cambridge. Kohlberg also set up a three-person engineering-materials-information technology team. Complementing them come a basketball squad-sized … Next Page »

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