CIV’s community director, Dr. Vladi Dvoyris, interviewed Ms. Katharine Ku, Director of the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), Stanford University.
You have been with OTL over 30 years, and its director since 1991, and you tell me it’s a fun job. What is so fun about it?
We’re at the intersection of University, Government and Industry; and of Science, Technology, and the Law… so you can play in any of these fields and still be doing your job!
You are a Chemist, right? How did you make the transformation to Technology Transfer?
Just by chance… I had good luck! I’m a Chemical Engineer, and I worked for Monsanto Corporation, so I had some Industry experience, and was an inventor myself. And then Stanford wanted to prepare for the Bayh-Dole law, so they decided to hire a “patent engineer”, which was a new kind of job at the time; I didn’t know if I could do it, but it sounded interesting. I brought industry experience, I understood patents as an inventor, I knew about computers from having done clinical trials… I had this varied background, so they hired me. I ended up helping inventors write disclosures of their inventions. But then my friends would ask me what had happened to the inventions I had worked on and I didn’t know because once written up they went over to an office in charge of Technology Licensing, which had just 2-3 people at that time. I decided my job of “patent engineer” was career-limiting, and decided to move into Technology Transfer per se.
When you came to Stanford OTL in 1984, the venture ecosystem in the valley was already developed, there were major companies like Intel and Apple… but it was definitely different than it is today. What exactly has changed in these 30+ years?
It wasn’t as entrepreneurial then as it is now, but it was entrepreneurial nonetheless. I remember meeting Prof. Jim Clark at Stanford; he was interested in launching a startup, and he did. Sun Microsystems was getting started. There was already a little entrepreneurial activity. But today everybody wants to start a company around here. It started relatively slowly but people were successful, and the university has always been very supportive of this ecosystem. Today it’s so vibrant that we don’t need to encourage startups, but we enable them.
You’ve published a great article in issue 4 of Coller Venture Review, called Stanford’s Secret Sauce. Can you elaborate on your approach to university tech transfer?
What we really believe in is that we should get the technology out. So, we try to be creative, to take into consideration the concerns of both the potential startup company and the university. So we believe in fair negotiation: we want to do the deal, we want to make this happen. Our people have a lot of autonomy to negotiate the best deal that works for both parties. We really believe that we have to reach a win/win solution and that the spirit of the agreement reflects the spirit of the relationship. A good relationship can help us steer through all the challenges that the new company will face as they develop the technology. We always try to be reasonable and flexible, and I think that we’re really good at that.
You’re surrounded by a huge, world-renowned venture ecosystem. How can you prevent brain drain from the university into that ecosystem? Or do you just let it happen?
Brain drain is a concept relevant to faculty, not to students who are meant to graduate and leave – we want them to do so and create startups. If a faculty member wants to take a leave of absence they can do that, though it isn’t all that common and mostly they come back; they prefer the university life. In any case, it’s the individual’s choice to make.
Carnegie Mellon recently suffered a huge drain of transportation specialists after Uber started a research center right across the street. Has anything like that happened at Stanford?
Well, you know, we’re very close to Google here… and people do come and go in both directions. But they’re good people, in both university and industry.
Let’s talk about the students now. Today, more than ever, students must ask themselves, why come to a university at all when they can start a company at age 18… what is the added value they can get from studying for a degree?
My personal feeling is that at 18 you don’t always know where you want to be at 50 or 60. I think a university education broadens your horizons and exposes you to lots of different people and different ideas. The choices you make at 18 may not be the choices you’d want to have made, looking back, when you’re 50. So I think of university education as keeping the doors open. If all you want to do is make it big as an entrepreneur, make a lot of money, and want to take that chance at 18, that is perfectly fine; I would expect, or hope, that you’ll then want to come back to the university, because again, the university experience is much more broadening than just being an entrepreneur.
Our institute is approached by numerous universities that do not have a technology transfer office yet and they want to establish one. We tell them of course that they are not Stanford and are not in Silicon Valley, but we do have to give them some advice. What would be the best tip that you can give a new technology transfer office just making its first steps in the world?
You have to live the talk, that is, you have to take risks. Many times a student is interested in taking a license from the university but has no experience; but if you see that they have a passion in their heart to make it work, take the risk and go with it.
I think the biggest hurdle for those universities that want to start a TTO is proving themselves. They should go for the low hanging fruits – try to make as many deals as they can, so they can prove to their university that they CAN make a deal.
So how does one make a deal? You have to be flexible. You have to be willing to negotiate something that’s reasonable, but don’t expect to maximize money, or even optimize money, because it isn’t about money, it’s about transferring the technology. My personal view is that if you do as many deals as possible – and good deals, they shouldn’t be bad deals – then eventually the money will come. The philosophy should be “don’t worry about the money – do the deal”. Most TTOs are really trying to stress that this is not about making money, it is about entrepreneurship, about moving the technology from the university to industry as efficiently and effectively as possible.
We are going to meet at the end of April at the Coller Institute of Venture’s conference in Hong Kong, and I’d like to hear from you what are your expectations from that conference and what would be your message to its attendees?
I think the conference is going to be great, CIV has always put together some very interesting programs. The message we should all hope to get from the conference is that this is a very vibrant time for university technology transfer right now. Everybody is trying new models, trying to do things more effectively, and the more sharing that we do, the better it is for all of us. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and together we can do a much better job and we’ll be moving technology from university to industry faster and better.