Science trainees, have you considered a career in technology transfer?
by Nnamdi Nelson, PhD | May 29th, 2021
When I was younger, I regularly watched science documentaries and was inspired by how scientific breakthroughs could improve lives. Over the years, my admiration for scientists and the scientific process grew and led me to pursue a graduate degree in neuroscience. As I continue on my educational journey and training, I’ve realized that it takes a team of scientific professionals to accomplish the goals of a research project and bring a product to market.
Graduate students in science acquire a broad set of skills in research, time management, project management, problem-solving, leadership, and communication. These skills are invaluable not only for those on the academic track but also for those who seek to launch careers in industry. New Ph.D. graduates are immediately qualified for entry-level jobs in both the public and private sectors. Postdoctoral training, for those who choose to embark on the journey, is a great opportunity to expand your scientific horizon and hone the skills acquired during graduate school. However, to increase their competitiveness for jobs outside the lab, postdocs should consider opportunities that both add to and refine their skills.
Careers in technology transfer are ideal for science trainees (graduate students and postdoctoral researchers) who enjoy learning about new technologies, are curious about the broader impact of scientific inventions in society and excel when working as part of a team. This career track is also a good fit for scientists interested in working at the intersection of science, law, and business.
A doctoral degree is highly desirable for biology and chemistry trainees seeking to enter the intellectual property (IP) profession. However, those who hold bachelor’s or master’s degrees and have significant research experience can learn on the job and thrive in this profession.
What do intellectual property professionals do?
Broadly speaking, technology transfer professionals work as licensing associates in research institutions and as patent agents in law firms.
Licensing and commercialization associates at research institutions evaluate newly disclosed technologies to develop patenting, marketing, and licensing strategies for inventions. They identify and nurture important strategic relationships with academic and industry stakeholders to ensure that their institution’s IP assets are available for public benefit. The work of licensing associates is vital for attracting royalty income to reward hardworking scientists and to support ongoing research and education. Technology licensing associates are also involved in business development and strategic alliance management. Science trainees with diverse research experiences are well suited to join university technology transfer teams because they are familiar with the academic research environment and possess the core competencies needed to grow and be successful in the role.
Distinct from licensing associates in academic institutions are patent agents in law firms and pharmaceutical companies who draft and prosecute patent applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Science trainees can join law firms as scientific analysts or technology specialists and perform duties such as patent and non-patent literature searches, freedom-to-operate analyses, corporate due diligence, client counseling, and non-legal pro-bono work. Analysts and specialists are also expected to pass the patent bar exam in order to qualify to practice before the USPTO as registered patent agents. Law firms often reimburse the cost of the exam and the recommended Patent Office Exam Course offered by the Practicing Law Institute. Additionally, large law firms support patent agents who choose to earn a JD degree in IP Law, which qualifies them as patent attorneys who can litigate in the court room. The support offered by law firms could be in the form of tuition reimbursement to attend law school, part-time/summer employment with the firm, or both. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are typically more interested in hiring experienced patent agents and patent examiners to join their in-house IP teams.
How can science trainees get their foot in the door?
As an aspiring technology transfer and business development professional, I have had many conversations with licensing associates and patent agents from distinguished research institutions and law firms. The key take-home message is that careers in IP management are multi-disciplinary, making them a great fit for hardworking and resourceful individuals. A science trainee who hopes to break into such roles must proactively seek experiences outside the lab to complement their strong scientific background. There are a few key skills scientists should focus on to become competitive in these spaces:
Develop and nurture your intellectual agility
An advanced degree in science allows you to quickly learn and assimilate new scientific concepts. During your science training, take advantage of opportunities to attend talks on a broad range of biomedical science topics. Many academic institutions with vibrant research enterprises have technology transfer offices that offer internship opportunities for science trainees to work alongside licensing associates to learn the basics of the profession. In these roles, you will encounter diverse scientific subjects and work to commercialize new technologies. Internships in law firms and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that expose you to different technologies are another great option. If you are a United States citizen, you may consider applying for the National Institute of Health’s Technology Transfer Fellowship Program. Through the program, you will be mentored by seasoned IP professionals and have the opportunity to work on technologies from national laboratories and research institutes.
Enhance your communication skills
Embrace opportunities to write for the general public about topics that fall outside your area of scientific expertise. Science writing exercises allow you to not only showcase your writing skills but also demonstrate your ability to synthesize information on new topics. It is important to seek feedback on your writing from a third party. Responding to critiques on your work will help you learn how to diplomatically navigate complex situations with clients and USPTO patent examiners (e.g., responding to office actions) or the process legal professionals colloquially call the “patent dance.” Biotech Connection-Bay Area (BCBA), for example, offers science communication internship programs where science trainees can work with industry mentors to research and publish articles on biotech- and business-related topics. Your experience in public speaking and familiarity with the review process for academic articles and grant proposals are also invaluable.
Keep abreast of the latest scientific advances
Read articles that interest you from websites like Managing Intellectual Property, Bloomberg Law, Intellectual Property Magazine, Fierce Biotech, New York Times Science Column, The Scientist, Popular Science, and law and business school reviews. Reading well-written articles further helps you improve your analytical thinking and writing skills. Offices like UCSF’s Entrepreneurship Center and QB3 offer Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurial talks, many of which are available online. You can also learn about new biotechnology innovations by listening to science and technology podcasts.
Connect with industry professionals and nurture the relationship over time
Informational interviewing, LinkedIn, and Twitter are great mediums to connect with IP professionals in universities and law firms. Large law firms often organize free virtual training workshops where they discuss legal topics pertinent to scientists, entrepreneurs, and startup companies. IP attorneys and patent agents from such law firms frequently make themselves available for one-on-one office hours to answer questions about legal, regulatory, business, and career-related topics. Additionally, trainee-led organizations like BCBA and Harvard Biotech Club offer opportunities to participate in consulting and due diligence engagements with life science companies as well as career/networking fairs. The Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the leading association in technology transfer, provides abundant training, mentorship, and networking opportunities for trainees and IP professionals. Importantly, after forming relationships with industry professionals, you should occasionally touch base with your network either via electronic communication or in person.
Take the leap and apply for positions
There is no linear path to a career in IP, so apply when you believe the time is right. Established principal investigators who are also inventors on patents have experience with the technology transfer process and can refer you for open positions at research institutions and law firms. Throughout the application process, you may seek the guidance of your mentors as well as the professional development office at your institution. Career mentors can offer helpful tips on how to tailor your application materials to make them stand out (e.g., highlight your relevant work experiences and what makes you “diverse”, showcase your special talents and language competency – bilingual or multilingual). Sharpen your interviewing skills – bear in mind that companies are looking for confident and personable employees.
Although considerable time and planning go into deciding on a career in laboratory research, changes to your personal life and interest can warrant a career pivot. Fortunately, there are many careers outside the lab that are suited for science trainees. Jobs in technology transfer are a great option because they keep you close to science and the business of science. During a networking session, I received remarkable advice from a healthcare entrepreneur: trainees must remember to prioritize their emotional and physical wellbeing while navigating their careers. You should eat well, exercise, meditate, and get plenty of restful sleep. Remember that you are better than you think you are. Things will always work out provided you invest the needed effort, arm yourself with knowledgeable mentors, and maintain your eyes on the prize. Good luck!
Nnamdi Nelson, PhD is a postdoctoral scholar in the Diabetes Center at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also a Technology Analyst Intern at the UCSF Office of Technology Management.