Exit Interview: Lita Nelsen on MIT Tech Transfer, Startups & Culture

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single pharmaceuticals. Because if a pharmaceutical hits the market, it’s going to be in the multi-billon dollar [range]. The equity is seldom worth a lot, unless of course you can follow up with preferred investments. But that’s not what we’re in the business of doing.

Any university that counts on its tech transfer to make a significant change in its finances is statistically going to be in trouble.

The key element of why this office succeeds is that the upper administration of MIT is not primarily doing it hoping we’re going to make them a lot of money. But they understand the other benefits of what we do, in terms of midwifing technology from our labs into the economy, and the impact on students and the public.

You take that, and the fact that the MIT style is to delegate a lot of autonomy down so that things can happen. I don’t have to go through lawyers; I can sign the license agreements. So long as you know what you’re doing, stay out of ethical problems, and the outside world thinks you know what you’re doing, they allow people to operate at the interface, rather than climb up and down the bureaucracy ladder. That makes it possible to attract good people into the place.

From 30 years at this thing, I know that it’s a talent-based business. The people have to have the credentials in terms of understanding the technology. But we also hire people who have significant business experience so that they’re bilingual between academia and industry. And then hire people who are self-motivated, who can solve messy problems, and who want to get the job done because it’s interesting and worthwhile.

X: How does it feel to be retiring?

LN: It feels that 30 years is enough. It’s time for me to learn new things, do new things. But I’m leaving a wonderful staff, which is hard. And this place, it’s my hometown in a way. I went to school here and all.

There are losses, but I think we’re all very proud of what we’ve built. I’m grateful to have been here.

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