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  • Rich Schneider & Bill Mitchell

The UCLA Tech Development Story – From Average to Breakaway

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Our previous article explored the landscape of translating university IP into real-world applications. In short, we found a very mixed story of success. In spite of enormous resource commitment and many groundbreaking success stories, the actual practice of bringing IP to commercialization is very uneven. Institutions with very large budgets have mixed records in commercializing ideas, while others with modest resources are much more consistent in bringing their IP to the real world. We found that UCLA is an institution that has done an exceptional job in this arena--this article provides more to that story.

In the late 2000’s UCLA was a well-regarded, multi-disciplinary research and academic institution, with particular strength in medical technology and science. While it was well respected, it was ranked by organizations such as AUTM as “middle of the pack” at best in terms of its success in bringing innovation to the marketplace. Several significant developments such as the sciences underlying the cancer drug Herceptin and Viagra had been developed there but had not been exploited by the school. In 2007 a new Chancellor came in from the outside who had a strong background in neuroscience and he recognized the potential of the research effort at UCLA that was going unrealized. With his strong vision and leadership, he set about to build a consensus among the faculty and trustees that there was great unrealized potential. In the meantime, a promising prostate cancer drug was being developed at the school that provided a potential platform for approaching the commercialization of the IP in a different manner. The chancellor vowed to up UCLA’s game -- to not have a repeat of the past.

This effort resulted in the creation of the Westwood Technology Transfer Company in 2014, an independent 501(c)(3) organization whose mission was to bring a more business-oriented model to commercializing IP and the prostate IP in particular to market. This was, and still is, a bold strategic initiative – a game changer. By approaching IP commercialization from the mindset of an investor, WTT drove a licensing deal with a development partner that brought in revenue to UCLA that greatly exceeded expectations. The prostate drug, Xtandi, has gone on to be a major clinical success. WTT evolved into the UCLA Technology Development Group (TDG), and, in 2016, a leading technology development and startup company executive was brought in from Israel’s famed Weizmann Institute to be the CEO. The UCLA TDG has now led UCLA to be ranked in the top 12 institutions in the annual AUTM and Heartland Forward rankings. IP licensing and investment income are now at multiple levels higher than previously realized, and an average of 20-30 startups per year are being created from UCLA IP. In the Sage Partners Technology Development Maturity Model, which evaluates institutions across a number of measures, UCLA sits in the rarefied air as a true leader, a Breakaway in our methodology.

A number of lessons can be taken from the UCLA journey. Chief among them are:

It Starts at the Top: The new Chancellor recognized the potential not being realized and began a concerted effort to bring his vision to the key constituencies – faculty, trustees, alumni – that there was great opportunity consistent with the university’s mission not being realized. This did not happen overnight, but rather was a diligent and concerted effort over a period of years to bring change to the institution’s way of thinking and acting.

Not Your Average Technology Transfer Organization (TTO): Early on the emphasis was placed on marrying academic/research excellence with seasoned business perspective and experience. The WTT platform provided a robust vehicle to remove commercialization activities from the politics and day-to-day governance issues of the university and place them in an organization that was focused on creating value by commercialization. TDG features an outside board of independent, seasoned operating executives, venture capital executives, and financial experts who bring well-connected business perspectives to the academic excellence resident in the school. It is a powerful combination

Making “TTO” a Real Function: The TDG CEO has built a sophisticated business development capability and business model. TDG is staffed by a cadre of senior technology managers who are experienced in bringing technology to market and creating companies. They are individually expected to be knowledgeable and conversant enough with the technology under their responsibility that they can proactively reach out to development partners and create and deliver pitch decks to those parties. Internally, they work with Principal Investigators to translate the science into concrete use cases that help “de-risk” the concept for potential development partners. In short, they are not simply running a patent law and licensing agreement function. Rather they operate via close business and scientific collaboration to create real companies that create value from university IP.

More Than Just The Internal Environment: The UCLA technology development ecosystem has grown into a much broader role than simply creating ideas. It is an active promoter within the entire Los Angeles technology and innovation environment as a place where innovation is a priority -- an exceptionally strong and visible regional economic development partner. In addition, UCLA sponsors conferences such as its annual MedTech Conference which is recognized as a leading forum for sharing and promoting emerging medical technologies. UCLA plays on a much broader canvas.

UCLA’s story is compelling. Without question, UCLA has benefited greatly from its windfall with Xtandi – something not everyone will experience. Each institution is unique and no single approach fits all. And, of course, tension still exists between the academic mission and the opportunity for commercial gain – there are skeptics who remain uncomfortable with TDG’s role. But UCLA has intentionally created, and institutionalized, a structure and process to enable TDG activities to become a key part of its mission to build the University’s prestige. Others can take this journey. Our role as Sage Partners is dedicated to helping other Universities to achieve similar success in Turning Research into Revenue.

Sage Partners Bill Mitchell & Rich Schneider contributed this Sage Advice.

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