With the constantly advancing technology landscape, it is now a necessity for researchers to evolve as well informed and trained technology architects. The Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) is Penn’s one-stop-shop for commercialization. PCI brings traditional technology transfer, corporate contracts, new venture creation and corporate alliance building together in a single matrix. To bolster their mission, PCI Fellowship program was started by PCI in 2008. The program aims at equipping graduate students and post-doctoral fellows with technical knowledge and practical experiences in technology transfer. On the tenth anniversary of this program, the CAMB Student Newsletter commemorates the past years of successfully training the highly motivated research community at Penn by presenting a special interview with the director of the PCI fellowship program, Dr. Tomas Isakowitz.
What were the main objectives behind starting the PCI fellowship program back in 2008 ?
The program was started to fulfill two major goals. It would provide a low risk, low time commitment opportunity for students and post docs to gain experience in technology transfer by working directly at the PCI office. Along with this, it would fulfill an important need for PCI by supporting its operations. The program is aimed at training students how to evaluate a technology for patentability, write patentability assessments, and create marketing assessments that would be used to find compatible industrial partners for developing the technology. More than one hundred applicants have been trained successfully by the program in the past ten years.
What is the best route for technology development: to design an intervention, and then perform its market assessment, or to assess the existing needs in the market first and then design an intervention accordingly ?
Usually you have an idea or a product and you sense that it should work. People put a lot of emphasis on developing the product and ensuring that it’ll work. But often this is counter-productive. The initial hypothesis is that there exists a problem or need that the intervention would address, but often, in reality that need isn’t there, or it is different from what the inventors thought it was. Thus, assessing the market needs and validating your research outcomes from before can make a huge difference.
Can outsourcing for technology development and transfer from lab to marketplace be a getaway for the inventors who have minimal expertise with this process ?
The inventors often outsource the task of talking to the end users. However, the outsourcing end doesn’t have the expertise to implement the changes suggested by the end users. It’s crucial to have the involvement of the inventors, especially in the initial stages of technology development. Outsourcing doesn’t help always.
Do you think there is a gap in the current scientific training system where the practical skill set to assess and translate research outcomes is often ignored? How can we address this gap ?
Many scientists are interested in impacting the therapeutics market, and the impact through their research is fantastic, but often the know-hows of how to make it commercially successful are missing. Scientists are trained in experiment design and statistics, but there isn’t any emphasis on understanding what distinguishes one type of research outcome from another in terms of its impact on developing the product or services. It will thus be good to offer opportunities to students who are interested in technology transfer to develop their skills. This will also benefit the scientists that stay in research.
Do you see any new trends or shifts in terms of the projects assigned to the fellows ?
Now there is more work towards the marketing side. We have expanded the program from invention assessment and market assessment to marketing the technology and entrepreneurship. A new program called I-CORPS offers another track to the fellows that want to gain experience towards setting up startups.
Can you tell us a little more about this new program, I-CORPS ?
I-CORPS gives aspiring entrepreneurs an opportunity to setup their startup using National Science Foundation funds. They acquire skills and receive guidance to validate their business idea, clearly articulate what the value of their idea is in the marketplace, and talk to potential customers to understand the existing gaps that their intervention can bridge. Fellows from the PCI fellowship program are also allowed to work with these startups to gain a deeper understanding of what makes a potential idea successful.
What has been your biggest challenge in training the fellows in the past ten years ?
I would say the biggest challenge has been to satisfy the high demand from students and post-docs to participate in the program. The applicants are very qualified, and our program can only take in so many; about 8 to 10 a year are brought in as PCI Fellows.
How has the overall experience been for you?
The experience has been very rewarding. It's a very congenial work environment and what really makes me happy is to see that our initiative has actually made a difference in people’s lives. Most of the people that came through PCI fellowship program ended up joining careers related to product commercialization, tech transfer offices at universities, law firms doing IP law, research positions at industries, medical writing or consultancies.
Do you have any last words of advice for current students?
Make use of the opportunity offered by PCI as they can make a big difference when applying for jobs. Follow the patents published every week. Be open to experimenting new things in life. Your experiences are what differentiates you from others.
Dr. Tomas Isakowitz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Computer Science in the Translational Neuroscience Program at Penn. He is the Program Director for the PCI Fellowship and I-CORPS programs run by the Penn Center for Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also been a Visiting Lecturer in The Wharton School, Operations and Information Management Department. Prior to Penn, he was an Assistant Professor at the Information Systems Department at the New York University Stern School of Business.
Learn more about PCI or the Fellowship program at the links below: