A key strand of the work the Midlands Innovation Commercialisation of Research Accelerator (MICRA) has undertaken to develop the region’s higher education technology transfer ecosystem, is supporting those developing careers in the technology transfer sphere.
It is well known that regions like the midlands currently have a shortage of people with the skills needed to become effective technology transfer officers (TTOs). MICRA has sought to overcome this challenge by providing a suite of sector leading learning, development and networking opportunities for TTOs and other staff at the eight Midlands Innovation universities. This has benefited established TTO professionals by providing bespoke, enhanced training in areas like corporate governance and business development techniques, as well as supporting emerging and potential technology transfer office staff.
MICRA has funded the recruitment of a new cadre of TTOs, based at each of the Midlands Innovation technology transfer offices, providing them with a new core team member. Many of them are completely new to the technology transfer field, representing a major injection of fresh blood into the sector in the midlands.
Nearly 18 months after starting in her MICRA funded post as a Commercialisation Associate at Loughborough University Dr. Monalie Bandulasena has been reflecting upon how she has developed since she began working as a TTO in the spring of 2019. She feels that the opportunities and support provided by Loughborough and the wider MICRA network has been crucial in terms of getting her technology transfer career off to a flying start.
Monalie’s academic background lies in chemical engineering, the subject in which she received her first degree from Sri Lanka’s University of Moratuwa. As a PhD student at Lougborough University Monalie used methods drawn from the study of microfluidics to explore and enhance the production of micro and nanoparticles.
As part of her research she designed and built a microfluidic device to help simplify her experimental procedure. A decision which proved to be the first step that put her on the road to her current career as a TTO. Monalie says “my supervisors and the Loughborough Enterprise (technology transfer) Office saw the originality of my device and decided to explore its commercial potential.” This led to her carrying out patent searches, conducting the market research and exploring potential commercial and industrial partners to collaborate with in exploring potential commercial avenues for her innovative product. Alongside this work, Monalie gained a place on Loughborough’s Engineering Yes scheme which provided time, training and space for her and a cohort of five other early career researchers to develop their applied innovative skills.
Whilst her PhD at Loughborough provided her with initial opportunities to master key components of the TTO toolkit, Monalie was still surprised by aspects of the job when she graduated and moved into being a Commercialisation Associate. She says whilst she already knew about the IP protection before disclosing to industry, putting in place Non-Disclosure Agreements before discussing technologies with external partners and the necessity of hard, rigorous work to build a successful company, it was a surprise to discover how much of background work a TTO has to complete before reaching these successful stages.
“Being a successful TTO involves complicated tasks like identifying the unique value proposition of technologies, tricky negotiations with potential licensees, pinning down the correct market to target as well as simple yet crucial work like building relationships with academics and industry partners… Which are all more difficult than I thought”, said Monalie
Despite the initial work required to surmount these unfamiliar hurdles Monalie feels that she has rapidly developed as a TTO since joining Loughborough 18 months ago. She cites the support, development and networking opportunities on offer through the MICRA network, as well as the very encouraging environment at Loughborough Enterprise, as being key components of her rapid adjustment to working in the field.
She explains that “as a newcomer to the TTO landscape MICRA has offered a great range of training opportunities which helped me understand the basics of tech transfer, spinout formation, network building and pitching/presenting to investors and alike… I have really appreciated the practical opportunities for applying the knowledge gained from MICRA’s learning and development programme in my day job. I’ve found am better able to understand and build upon the experience I am gaining, promoting our technologies to the wider world, in addition to improving my skill as a negotiator, decision maker, network builder, and facilitator of collaborative commercial partnerships”.
Monalie also cites the sense that participation in the MICRA network has given her of being part of a TTO profession and community of practice. “It’s helped me form connections across universities, and know where else I can go for advice and help… It’s introduced me to organisations like PraxisAurial… I now know that there’s this ‘whole thing’ out there called technology transfer”, she says. Something she has found especially beneficial since March 2020, when after only 10 months in post, the Covid-19 pandemic plunged her into an extended period of homeworking.
At the end of her reflections Monalie sums up how she has developed as a TTO over the past 18 months stating “my thinking has changed a lot from being a pure scientific researcher to a more market focused person. When I was a researcher, I believed that if something new leaves a lab, it will gain interest from the outside world instantly. Now I know, that’s not the case, it doesn’t solely depend on the tech innovation but also depends on demand and market requirements. These days the first thing I think is “how will an innovation appear from an industry point of view”? I question its feasibility, profitability and how adoptable the tech is by the industrial sector or market currently…. I now understand how it fits into the picture as it is seen by potential collaborators and how to develop it for target markets”.
Looking to the longer term it seems that Monalie’s positive and well supported introduction to the world of technology transfer means that she’ll stay in the sector and continue to develop her career. “Of course there’s things which I like more or less about my work…” she reflects “but long term I can see the potential for specialisation… I’ll definitely stay in the tech transfer sphere for the longer run”.