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Outside of Academia: April Effort, Technology Development


While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, April Effort found herself enthralled by her molecular biology research, yet dispirited by the seemingly sluggish pace at which scientific discoveries translate to "actually helping people," she says.

"Being at the bench, sometimes it moves so slow, so incremental," Effort says. "I wanted to be part of translating things that would help treat disease or fix problems."

And so, after earning a master's degree, Effort began to seek out what she calls a "solutions-oriented" career, one that would help move clinically or commercially useful science further downstream. Working in Boston University's Technology Development Office, she now helps manage the school's portfolio of life science inventions and helps faculty translate their research ideas.

Effort and her colleagues regularly meet with BU researchers, inviting them to discuss potentially transferable ideas. "We help them triage whether or not the idea would actually be an invention," Effort says. "What that means is: Is it patentable? Does it have commercial or clinical utility? Is it market-timed? … You have to have market timing, market need, and patentability."

As associate director of business development and therapeutics, Effort spends much of her time meeting with internal stakeholders — BU faculty — and their external counterparts — private companies, venture capitalists, and other investors as well as, on occasion, policy professionals. While she's not working to connect an internal invention to an external investor, Effort takes on a project management role. "We talk to industry and identify commercially relevant milestones, then work with investigators to put together a plan to reach those milestones, which is usually an iterative process," she says. "The end goal for us [is] a license with a commercial partner to bring the technology to market — this can be with an existing company or by putting together a startup company."

Effort says that "in this job, you have to understand the science — that's step one." Understanding the science, she adds, is the only way to get a grasp on its potential applications.

It's this solutions-oriented mindset that Effort finds most rewarding about her job. "I love learning about new science and [getting] to see everything — such a wide range of new ideas and new approaches. …What's most rewarding is when you see a poster and you see the potential of what could be," she says. "And sometimes the inventor hasn't even seen that."

Of course, tech development has its challenges. Effort says an especially tough part of her position is "seeing good ideas that don't get developed because there's not enough funding."

But even those ideas that are funded can falter down the line. Effort has come to see that tech transfer, too, is an incremental process and requires cooperation among otherwise disparate partners. "Hopefully, the bets that we place today will continue to get funding and continue to move forward," she says.

For students and postdocs interested in pursuing careers in technology development, Effort says it's important to "be persistent and open-minded — you never know what you're going to be interested in until you explore it." She adds that volunteering on tech transfer projects is a good way to get a feel for the process.

Effort says it's also a good idea to monitor trends, both in the science and in the market. "Oftentimes in graduate school, you're studying a pathway, or a target in that pathway," she says. "Being aware of other targets in that pathway [is important]: What are other people working on? What's hot? What would lend itself to being a novel approach attacking the disease, and why?"

And while she suggests that students ought to be aware of what's going in the market, she realizes that it can be difficult to see beyond the bench — particularly because, Effort adds, the science "is the most interesting part."

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