KCA Annual Conference 2015 wrap-up

Raising the Bar was the theme of this year’s KCA Annual Conference, with discussion focussed around the big picture of technology transfer and where things are headed in Australia.  We wanted a program which inspired our audience to go away thinking about what it is that we are doing and why, and how we can look to improve and adapt so that we continue to add value well into the future.

The internal perspective:

We kicked off the conference by trying to get a better understanding of what our internal stakeholders think of us, and gain insight as to the perceived role of the commercial office within the research organisation.  Unsurprisingly, they saw the TT office as being instrumental in aiding them to navigate the murky waters of IP policies, avoid common pitfalls and steer negotiations to ensure a win/win situation for all parties is achieved.  With Universities eager to collaborate and work more with industry, the office’s role in facilitating such partnerships is more crucial than ever.

Looking at it from the University side, while there is a growing focus on engaging with industry, there isn’t the resource to return the results that many would like to see.  Research organisations recognise the need to invest in developing long term relationships with industry, and the need to bridge the gap between the conflicting needs and outputs of both sides, but this will take time to create the balanced ecosystem that is required and will require both sides coming together and working at it to make it a reality.

IMG_2982_1The external perspective:

Relationships, relationships, relationships.  This was the core theme of the industry engagement session.

Long-term relationships are fundamental to successful industry engagement, and more can be done on all sides to better nurture these relationships to make them more prosperous.  Business 101 perhaps, but still a needed reminder as sometimes this essential element is not as well tended to as it could be.  Open and honest communication is vital, as is water tight project management from all sides.

Business is keen to work with research organisations, and it was acknowledged that research is useful when trying to figure out how to approach an idea, or for developing solutions to problems over the longer term.  However, business still struggles to identify what is happening inside research organisations, and they are critical of the current state of marketing such information (a shortfall which research organisations acknowledged in the first session as something that needs to be worked on).

They want to engage with elite problem solvers within research organisations in short sprints to test the waters, and once they begin to become immersed in the business and understand its needs, then begin to work on bigger, more integrated projects.  Particularly for larger organisations, it is a slow, organic process, built fundamentally on the quality and success of relationships.

Projects gone by:

Next we took a step back and examined projects gone by to take heed of the learnings to be had from other’s fortunes and misfortunes. Discussing diverse topics from big deals to big litigation, again the theme of relationships shone through.

UWA v Gray is an iconic and cornerstone case for modern day tech transfer in Australia, but this time the audience was privy to rarely heard insight around proceedings at the time, with the primary take home message ultimately cautioning us to maintain relationships to avoid litigation if at all possible.

Getting to know your end user and understanding their needs to develop a bespoke solution was at the core of the next tale.  Amaero was the Monash response to their industry partners’ need, a manufacturing company specialising in high quality 3D printing of products, ranging from hip implants to Boeing jet engines.  The rise of Amaero was an interesting mix of no protectable IP in a highly competitive market, and attracting the right investors to grow internationally.

Taking a strategic approach and getting the right people involved is how Fibrotech achieved one of Australia’s biggest biotechnology deals to date.  Great science and access to the right investment fund, coupled with smart business strategy shows that local drug development can have a huge impact internationally.

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The route to professionalisation:

Technology transfer as a practice is relatively new.  Unlike doctors, lawyers and accountants, we don’t have hundreds of years of history guiding and informing current practice.  Therefore to “raise the bar” around what we do as a collective, and work towards becoming a recognised “profession,” we need to define where this “bar” sits in the first place.

A small yet very important piece of the puzzle to designing our future as a profession is to understand who and where we are now.  We need to have a firm grip on the scope of our roles, what our stakeholders perceive this to be, and how we rank ourselves in our ability to perform. To shed some light on this, KCA is working with our partner’s gemaker to investigate the intricacies of the tech transfer role, and map out the key elements required to effectively put research to use.  To date, we have gathered enough information from the KCA member base to mock up a draft competencies matrix (essentially a big cheat sheet detailing all the key human intelligence ingredients a tech transfer office needs to help its research organisation facilitate the transfer of IP) and are now comparing this self-informed chart against the findings from stakeholder interviews (which are revealing what they need from a tech transfer professional) to generate a comprehensive list of office competency requirements.

At the end of the project we will have developed a useful tool which can be used by both decision makers and individuals to better inform resourcing needs of offices, training requirements of individuals, and better inform career planning.

Being inspired to be novel in our approach:

Our novel ways to transfer knowledge was all about challenging our thinking about the way in which we approach tech transfer, and how we might look to adapt in order to service an ever changing external environment.

Markets are changing and we are living in a consumer centric world where business is focussing on solving the needs of the individual and developing bespoke solutions to service their needs. So how are we as a group working with business to help facilitate this process?  How are we distributing knowledge so that it consumable and relevant to the end user?  Monash decided to ditch the traditional information booklet and insert this content into an app; they now have a number one medical app in 50 countries and it is one of the top 40 paid for apps in the world.  This is great, but what else can we be doing to change our thinking and our approach?

SANOFI for example are shifting from pharma centric conglomerate to being more consumer focused.  As opposed to looking to treat the generic health problem, they are trying to treat the issues and concerns person instead.  While it may not be considered a radical shift, it has completely changed how they think about developing new products and services.  With new thinking brings new challenges, but be prepared to back your ideas and find a champion to help you push the idea through.  Don’t be afraid to fail, but trust your gut also if it is telling you to back away from an idea.

Getting traction with media to raise awareness of your project or its outcomes:

Whether you are trying to raise the profile of an individual project, your office or the sector as a whole, the fundamentals of communicating relevance and benefits remain the same.  Having heard repeatedly on day one that research organisations need to get better at “bragging about their achievements” and the importance of constant open and honest communication, closing off the conference with a frank discussion about the dos and don’ts of effectively presenting and disseminating information was a great way to round out the program.

This was the session that set most tongues wagging and left no doubt in anybody’s mind that as a sector, we NEED to get better at marketing and generating content for distribution.  Without it, we don’t have a voice and people are just left listening to the only other voices that are out there filling the vacuum.

Communication needs to be considered right from the beginning of a project, both as a risk management tool, as well as a means for promotion.  After a cranking ‘notice me’ entrance to iconic rock tune Know your Product (The Saints 1996), Biotech Daily editor, David Langsam, emphasised the importance of direct, transparent and to-the-point media announcements to capture journalists’ attention and help them want to promote our deals and discoveries.

Your six best friends are Who? What? Why? Where? When? and How?  How many words depends on the publication.  Make sure you tell your story clearly, and DO NOT use jargon.

Former BRW journalist and now ‘blog doctor’ Kath Walters explained why developing personal relationships with journalists matters, and spoke of exclusivity as the currency journalists prefer.  Personal stories that relate to the bigger picture are always more greatly favoured, but statistically proven research also has its place.

The Social Science’s creative director, Michelle Gallagher (ex-CEO of the BioMelbourne Network), shared some kick-butt facts and figures about the following that science and scientists now have in cyberspace, leaving us with no doubt about the awesome reach of social media compared to traditional methods of promoting new knowledge, as well as how it can bring enormous value.   You have access to people and information like never before on social media, and therefore can have conversations that you never had previously.  People consume more online social media that traditional media, so if you want to be heard, you need to have a voice in this medium.  Scientists with large followings on social media are increasingly valuable to their organisations, and are using these platforms to attract research dollars and other resources for projects.

In conclusion:

The take homes from this conference really were that relationships are fundamental to the success of everything that we do in tech transfer, and that as a whole, we need to lift our game when it comes to marketing.  Business 101 for sure.  But something we need to consciously work towards improving.

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