Translating science into business

Special Report: Higher education & research

The Medical College of Wisconsin.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 01:30 pm


Kevin Boggs joined the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2018 as the director of its Office of Technology Development, after working as a senior manager of global licensing with North Carolina-based nonprofit research institute RTI International. Boggs says he wants to expedite the process of bringing MCW research and inventions to the marketplace. BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Lauren Anderson recently spoke with Boggs about his new position. Following are portions of that interview.

BizTimes Milwaukee: What does MCW’s Office of Technology Development do?

Boggs: “The Office of Technology Development is responsible ultimately for helping bring the fruits of the research of our creative faculty to patients and their health care providers so we can improve health care outcomes. Succinctly, if we have diseases we don’t have treatments for, and we know that research can lead to new treatments, the way that you go from research to new treatment, it goes through tech transfer.

“We translate the science into business so businesspeople can understand it and get the rights and the support they need and the connections to faculty they need to bring those often high-risk products to market and help people. We do that by getting to know the researchers, what they’re doing, and then encouraging them to tell us about their inventions before they publish them so we can ensure we have the ability to get patent applications filed and patents issued outside the United States. Then, we are responsible for evaluating the commercial potential of a product that we see coming from those early stage research breakthroughs.

“It’s a pretty specialized business to do what we do. We have three licensing professionals, myself included, with backgrounds in microbiology and biochemistry and experience with startups.”

How do you assess an invention’s market potential?

“It takes a bit of creativity to look at research that is generally, almost always, purely academic, to say this could treat Huntington’s disease or a certain type of cancer, or could help improve MRI image analysis. We’re responsible for looking at the market. And it can seem like it’s very mercenary that we only invest in things that have a market, but we’re talking to either entrepreneurs who are going to start companies, or existing companies, who will be driven mostly by the market. They need to know they can raise money from angel investors or venture capitalists, who are looking for return on investment. Or, if it’s a large company, they also have to worry about whether or not (they are) investing sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, if it’s a new drug candidate.

“We also, of course, look at the intellectual property landscape. Is the invention they’re telling us about, is it potentially patentable? Is it different enough from things out there that we have a chance of getting reasonable patent protection? If it seems there is a potential market and a credible chance at patent protection, then we’ll say, ‘Yes, we’ll move forward with this.’ We’ll file a patent application. Then it will be our job to go out to the marketplace, companies and our entrepreneurial network to find someone who would be interested in doing the hard and risky work of bringing life science technologies to the marketplace.

“Say we find an entrepreneur with some experience that can raise funds to do the early work to bring the technology to market, then we negotiate licenses with them. Then it’s a situation where we work with them on what’s a reasonable structure that allows them if they’re a startup to raise money from venture capitalists, but also allows reasonable return from MCW. Because MCW takes any net revenue to support our network here and research, and inventors also receive a share of the net revenue.”

How are life sciences inventions particularly risky for investors?

“The amount of money involved is multiples larger than a prototypical IT startup. With life sciences, a lot of what we do has a long development pathway. Not all of it, but some of it certainly, is from the regulatory requirements, from the FDA, European Medicines Agency, the regulators in whatever country. And because the science is always, by definition, cutting edge … that does ramp up the reward profile, but also certainly ramps up risk profile.”

You’ve said you want to accelerate the process of bringing MCW inventions to market. How is your office doing that and what results have you seen?

“On the front end, I’m doing a lot of work to educate the faculty about the process and I think we’re able now to be a bit more nimble. We have the authority to make a lot more decisions within our own office here about whether or not to file patent applications and which licenses to move forward with. I think the faculty are responding to that.

“When faculty come to us with their invention, we call them ‘invention disclosures.’ It’s a confidential disclosure just to us. The rate of invention disclosures per year is a key metric for offices like ours. The four years before I arrived, it was around 50. And it looks like we’re going to hit 75 this fiscal year, which ends in a few weeks. That’s a good sign.”

“We want to make sure when we talk to (faculty), we have new information for them, the right answers for them, that we do everything we can to minimize the impact on their time. When we file their patent application, we need their help to review technical aspects, but we do everything else so it doesn’t really impact them that much.

“On the other end of the funnel, we’re continuing to make sure entrepreneurs and investors in the region know about us, that we are open for business, that we do reasonable deals. We don’t give anything away for free … but we want to make sure we do fast, reasonable deals. When an entrepreneur or a large company wants to do a deal with a university, they have options. If we make it clear that we move at the speed of business, give them a fast turnaround and fast answers, we show them we know what we’re doing and they can sense that. I think that we’re going to see more licenses simply from moving at that fast tempo.”

What kind of response have you seen from Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial community?

“If you’re not in Boston or San Francisco or maybe San Diego, then you face similar challenges. You don’t have packs of venture capitalists roaming the halls looking to meet every faculty member that you have. But, given that, I’m glad that we do have a decent number of venture capitalists in the state that will look at the early-stage deals. I’m learning more about the angel investors in the area and I believe they will be open to hearing about opportunities to invest in earlier rounds of investments.

“From what I’ve seen, I think there is an opportunity to increase the education and awareness campaign that I’ve been carrying out by getting to know the folks in the region. Since I’ve been here, we’ve signed licenses with six startup companies. We hadn’t done licenses with even one startup the previous two years. Those happened not long after I got here, so I’m not taking credit for them, but I believe that the attitude I bring to it of, ‘Let’s get things done,’ hopefully helped move things along.”

How does having a strong tech transfer office affect MCW as an institution?

“Tech transfer weaves itself into a couple different areas. For administration, tech transfer is seen as important for faculty recruitment and retention. For faculty that are competitive at a national level, we often lure them from other places, and they get lured from here. More than once, I’ve been asked to meet with candidates from other universities who want to know that we have a credible tech transfer office.

“I would say there needs to be more awareness that MCW is a rigorous research institution and, based on that rigor, we have quite valuable intellectual property that is a very credible basis of startup companies or new products on the market. Awareness is a very big thing. And certainly there is some level of awareness of what we do, but it needs to be broader across the state. I think a good number of people know we do research, but they need to know that we know how to work with people who are potential entrepreneurs and investors to help bring those to market.” n

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