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Cornell's New Tech-Transfer Head Discusses Challenges, Hot Issues

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Alan Paau
Vice provost of technology transfer and economic development
Cornell University
Name: Alan Paau
 
Position: Vice provost of technology transfer and economic development; executive director, Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise, and Commercialization, Cornell University
 
Background: Assistant vice chancellor for technology transfer and intellectual property services, University of California, San Diego; Executive director, Iowa State University Research Foundation; Associate director, Biotechnology Center at Ohio State University
 

 
Cornell University recently tapped tech-transfer veteran Alan Paau to lead technology commercialization efforts at the school’s main campus in Ithaca, NY, and the affiliated Weill Medical School in New York City.
 
Paau joined Cornell from the University of California, San Diego, where during his tenure he supervised the formation of 77 new companies founded on licensed USCD innovations and executed more than 440 commercial licenses and options. In 2005, with Paau at the helm, UCSD’s tech-transfer office brought in gross revenues of $21 million.
 
Cornell, no stranger itself to successful technology transfer – it ranked sixteenth among US research universities in the Milken Institute’s recently released tech-transfer and commercialization index – nevertheless appointed Paau to the newly created position of vice provost to “mirror the importance Cornell attaches to future technology transfer and economic development,” the school said in a recent statement.
 
Paau, who is currently on a “China-US-China again” travel schedule, as he put it, exchanged e-mails with BTW last week to discuss his new position and share his opinions on recent notable university technology transfer initiatives.
 
What is the relationship between your position as vice provost of tech transfer and economic development at Cornell and as executive director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise, and Commercialization?
 
The vice provost position reflects the responsibilities in the development of a strategic vision and the necessary planning for a program that best serves the missions of the university.
 
The Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization is the implementation unit of this vision. As its executive director, I am therefore also responsible for the center's operations.
 
What challenges have you faced thus far in your transition to Cornell from UCSD?
 
Settling into a new community, establishing the necessary network to advance a new vision, and reorganizing the office to improve operational efficiency and accountability are some of the challenges.
 
Can you elaborate on the need to improve operational efficiency?
 
Cornell's current administration has a strong desire to put more technologies in the hands of our industry partners and to turn them into more beneficial products for the public; and [to] make the process more transparent and with quicker responses to our faculty inventors. Therefore, we believe by restructuring the office as a "functional matrix" that we jokingly call our "4-wheel drive" model, we may achieve those goals. [This is] similar to the model that I had previously used at Iowa State and later at UCSD, which [is] maybe why I am here at Cornell now.
 
Cornell already has a pretty active program. But we all believe we can always improve and do better.
 
You have also served as executive director of the Iowa State University Research Foundation. What are some of the major differences, if any, in the tech transfer philosophies of Iowa State, UCSD, and Cornell?
 
Under my leadership, the tech transfer philosophies of these universities are now very similar in that they all actively promote "partnership" with industry to help turn results from the universities' research into useful products that benefit the public; leverage such research results to promote and enhance the regional economies; and to provide services to the universities to address intellectual property related issues.
 
A follow-up to this would be whether you've noticed different philosophies on either the West or East coasts of the US, and the Midwest, when it comes to tech transfer?
 
I really don't think the philosophies are different. The available resources may be different, however. For example, venture capitalists tend to clusters on the coasts.
 
What is your opinion on the recently established $100 million Mann Foundation research center on Purdue's campus? Do you see any possible drawbacks to such a large benefactor of tech-transfer related activities?
 
Since I do not have access to the details of the actual agreement other than what's available through the [media], it is difficult for me to really express an opinion.
 
Despite the headline-grabbing $100-million buzz, if the number of technologies that the institute may be able to take on is between two to six per year, the actual impact will not really be that great considering the total number of technologies the university's technology transfer program has to handle every year. But, all technology transfer programs are very busy and overworked. So, I presume every bit of help is welcome.
 
Does the fact that Cornell's Medical School is in New York but the main campus is in Ithaca provide any additional opportunities or challenges for technology transfer?
 
The two campuses provide both challenges and opportunities. The geographical separation does make collaboration and portfolio management more challenging. However, the two locations also cover a broader geographical access to talent and resources that helps with technology transfer and development.
 
What are some of Cornell's most recent success stories in terms of start-up companies and licensing royalties?
 
I have only been at the helm for less than three months and have not had the time to tally them yet. However, some of the startups that we are proud of include Kionix, Pacific Biosciences, and Hurel. They are all developing Cornell innovations into exciting products and businesses.
 
Regarding royalties, Cornell currently does not have a home run yet.
 
Do you think the Cornell would consider monetizing any of its future royalties on a technology, similar to Yale and Emory's monetization of cancer and HIV therapeutics, assuming you had such a desirable technology? What would be the benefits and drawbacks of this?
 
[Cornell has] considered monetizing IP rights but has not done anything very significant that warrants headline news. We certainly have simple arrangements with some entities (e.g., affiliated hospitals) to share future royalties if they provide the resources to help us further develop certain technologies, et cetera. But we are not talking about an instant cash-out by the university that draws attention or scrutiny.
 
The benefits of monetizing future royalties include getting a sum of money that you can use to meet some current demands, like some universities may need to build a new building; or to further develop technologies currently at hand and hopefully make them more attractive to industry, [which] may also [allow a school to] demand better licensing terms. Additionally, if anything unexpectedly negative happens to your drug – like adverse events and the FDA suspends your market label, et cetera – you already cashed in your royalties.
 
The drawbacks include suffering a pretty significant "discount" for the risk taken by the investor and for the time-value of money. Additionally, one may also not benefit from any unexpected market upswing or demands of your product.
 
Are there any particular 'hot' technologies ripe for commercialization at either Cornell or Weill Medical School in the near future? What are they?
 
We are now forming a startup that focuses on the discovery by Cornell researchers of the soluble adenylate cyclase and its unique properties. The Cornell researchers find that it is a key sensor that triggers the development of many microorganisms into their pathogenic forms and cause many diseases.

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