Guest posts / Technology

What Laurie Actman learned since joining Penn’s new innovation arm two years ago

The tech transfer leader on why the best academics are a lot like founders and how she overcame her university commercialization blind spots.

At the Penn Center for Innovation Ventures Showcase. (Courtesy photo)'s Editorial Calendar explores a different topic each month. The September 2016 topic is tech transfer. See tech transfer coverage from all five of our East Coast markets here.

This is a guest post by Penn Center for Innovation Chief Operating Officer Laurie Actman.

Over two and half years ago I took a leap into an exciting new initiative at Penn: the launch and implementation of the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI).
PCI’s launch was the result of a two-year planning effort among university leaders to determine the best strategies for expanding Penn’s commercialization potential and the right infrastructure to support these activities. University technology commercialization, also sometimes known as technology transfer, involves the creation of business relationships between the university and the commercial sector for the purpose of creating products, goods and services based on the active development of discoveries created at the university.
Though I joined PCI at its new Chief Operating Officer from a large university-led innovation project focused on collaboration with industry, I did not initially fully understand the process of tech transfer and how to explicitly connect it to Philadelphia’s economic engine. Now I have a front row seat to an amazing and evolving system that has the potential to create profound impacts on both our city and broader society.
Below are five key insights that I’ve learned since joining PCI:

1. The practice of tech transfer is interdisciplinary and collaborative

PCI encourages and evaluates early-stage ideas created by faculty for commercial potential, pursues patent protection of these ideas and facilitates industry partnerships or creates a startup to further develop these ideas into a product. While I can make this process sound simple, in reality, it is dependent on continuous collaborations between PCI and Penn scientific, legal and business experts with trusted external partners.
Being part of this mix of colleagues with different technical training, backgrounds and experiences is one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of being part of a tech transfer organization.  But introverts beware, if you want to jump in you should brush up on your team building, communication and collaboration skills!

2. It’s the origin of some of our biggest ideas and companies

To be a successful academic, it really helps to possess many of the same qualities that drive entrepreneurs.

One of the neatest aspects of working in tech transfer is that you get to witness the moment when an idea emerges and is evaluated, and then its development and transition to a commercial partner or startup. When you hear the names of certain companies or products, you know in many cases exactly which faculty member came up with the idea and how that idea transitioned to the market. You never know who is thinking up the next Warby Parker, Spark Therapeutics or Innovio Pharmaceuticals while hanging out on Locust Walk or working in their lab but you can be certain that these ideas are generated every day.

3. Universities, like Penn, are full of current and potential entrepreneurs

Despite the ivy growing on our Frank Furness buildings, Penn is no sleepy academic institution but much more of an idea factory where faculty and students are constantly inventing and pursuing new questions and solutions. While Penn prioritizes its primary missions of teaching and unbounded pursuit of ideas no matter their commercial potential, it turns out that to be a successful academic, it really helps to possess many of the same qualities that drive entrepreneurs: passion, motivation and a willingness to think outside the box.
For example, many Penn faculty work with PCI to jointly found start up companies and you can find students participating in entrepreneurial competitions all over campus. Whether you are looking for a faculty expert to help you figure out what technologies could disrupt your industry in five years or for a team of students to hack an idea into an app over the weekend, Penn has you covered.
This is one of the prime reasons why the Hershey Company, for example, recently decided to set up an Innovation Lab in the Pennovation Center — so they can meaningfully create ongoing collaborations with faculty and students to help inform and populate their innovation pipeline.

4. It’s very empowering to try something new and master it

PCI is the third organization I have joined where technical information needed to be understood and mastered in order to be successful. In each case, I had a big initial learning curve and was highly dependent on the patience and generosity of my colleagues as I learned what they do and how they contribute to the tech transfer process. PCI is led by John Swartley, one of the smartest and most talented leaders in the commercialization field nationally, and my colleagues include a group of experienced and passionate practitioners who are willing to mentor any new employee. So I got lucky.
Tech transfer is one of those activities that is difficult to fully understand unless you are in the middle of it, so it’s satisfying to finally “get it” and hopefully help improve and expand what we do via some of our strategic marketing, programmatic and communications initiatives. I think making career moves that force and challenge you to learn and embrace new skills are hard but ultimately great opportunities for growth.

5. It takes a village and Penn and Philadelphia are great places to start

My experience at PCI has been greatly bolstered by new and old collaborators and supporters who have emerged to understand what we do, provide advice, support our programs and potentially develop Penn invented technology. As the parent of a seventh-grade girl, I’m all too aware of the intentional and unintentional consequences of “tagging” so I’m not going to name names, but I hope these folks know who they are. These relationships started growing sixteen years ago once I arrived back in Philadelphia as a working professional and reinforce to me what a great place this is to grow a program, company or nonprofit initiative.

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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