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University Venture: the View From Cornell An interview with Dr. Alice Li

Alice LiCIV’s community director, Dr. Vladi Dvoyris, interviewed Dr. Alice Li, Executive Director of the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Cornell University.

Please tell us a little about your background and the activity of CTL.

I have a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell, and have worked in a startup after graduating. I then started to work in technology transfer, first as a portfolio manager in a TTO and advanced to management in CTL.

CTL is a university-wide office serving all Cornell campuses. It manages IP from all university groups. Every year we add 400 new disclosures, and assign about 100 licenses, and see some 11–15 startups as a result.

Cornell is recognized for its success in launching start-ups. Every Technology Transfer Office has its own “Secret Sauce”… what is yours?

We had to decide what areas of technology to focus on. The environment in New York is not Silicon Valley, much as we might like it to be. People think we should revive activity in technology, although New York is more about finance. We tried to help establish more start-up companies, within the NYC ecosystem, and in addition we collaborate with the NSF’s I-Corps program and have established a new incubator to support start-ups in Cornell.

You mentioned 11 new startups spun off last year. Do your metrics track startups established, or those that survive over time?

We have many different metrics; the important one is impact – number of products that made it to the market based on your startups. We track these startups over the years. In our geographic region we have more work to do on this because we are less connected to the venture scene than Silicon Valley or Boston.

When the entrepreneurs go elsewhere with their companies – to Boston, New York, or San Francisco – do they remain connected to the university or do they become part of the industry?

Our connection to the companies is through their license agreement, so we maintain an ongoing relationship. If they succeed, they also pay the university a small royalty. We don’t control them or their decision-making, however; the association with the university is that these alumni want to contribute back once they become successful.

Regarding the royalties money: are you free to use it as you see fit – for example to reinvest it in new ventures – or does the university decide what you may do with it?

In this we follow policy strictly; and the policy varies from university to university. Usually there is a portion to the inventors, a portion to support university units, and the university can decide how to apply its share.

What is the most crucial tip you can give to anyone starting a new technology transfer office?

The basic thing is that the program mission has to match the university’s mission; the tech transfer office has to align the mission first.

In terms of specifics, it is important to respect general principles, but also to be flexible and creative in making this work.

In managing the office, many employees have been in companies before, and they are the ones making it work.

The Cornell Tech campus in New York City is a collaboration with the Technion in Israel, which has its own accomplished  Tech transfer office. Are you planning to collaborate with that TTO – or would CTL be solely responsible for the NY activity?

We plan to collaborate. We already have a number of joint initiatives.

We will thoroughly discuss university venture at our CIV2017HK conference – join now at http://civ.global/civ2017hk

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