MIT program injects entrepreneurship


CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – July 21, 2015 – An MIT professor and lab director has devised a way to assess promising technologies while also encouraging post-docs to get involved in entrepreneurship by putting budding scientists to work on what has typically been a tech transfer professional’s job – doing what amounts to customer discovery as part of invention analysis.

Paying the post-docs to perform customer discovery functions can assist a university’s technology commercialization activities in two important ways, says Yoel Fink, PhD, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Research Laboratory of Electronics — who’s also a professor of materials science and a joint professor of electrical engineering and computer science. First, inventions that might not make it otherwise to a “market it or not” decision get the focused attention they need for an informed pass-or-play decision. And second, the post-docs themselves have a career path sketched out for them if the commercialization efforts succeed and a start-up is formed.

Using that model, Fink has turned his 700-staff lab into a mini-technology transfer operation to address frustrations he’d experienced as an undergraduate, when it seemed sometimes there were more roadblocks to turning an idea into a company than there were processes set up to help make that happen. “One of the things I was passionate about was figuring out how to get ideas from the lab out into the marketplace,” Fink says. “We have so many good ideas happening here, something like 700 technology disclosures every year, but only a small fraction will make it into the market.”

He determined to use his lab to see if he could figure out a better way. “I started thinking that a lab like RLE could be a test bed for new organizational ideas.”

The first step, he realized, was figuring out the university population’s demographic group that would carry out his plan. First he thought of students. But “undergrads are not involved in research, so they’re not the right group,” he calculated. How about grad students? No. “Grad school is the first significant thing they’re doing in their lives,” he comments now. “They’re pursuing a five-year PhD, and I didn’t want to distract them.” And faculty, he reasoned, were “already overcommitted.”

Post-docs seemed a perfect fit, he says. For one thing, he points out, “they’re transient, and they’re looking for jobs.” For another, “they know about the research, but there’s no lingering teacher-student relationship. The only problem he foresaw with post-docs was their need to be compensated for their time.

“Being a lab director, I actually have resources,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why not use some of those resources to buy the post-docs’ time, so I can direct their activities?’” The resources, he notes, came from “IP revenues that occurred in previous years. Instead of using [all of] that money to do good things in research, I thought we could use a portion to help start the next group of entrepreneurs and ideas.”

The “Translational Fellows Program” he created out of that funding “addresses two significant problems,” Fink explains. “One is how to get inventions out of here, and the other is how to get post-docs to not just need jobs, but to generate jobs.” And, he emphasizes, “for the first time, we were aligning MIT resources behind the idea of entrepreneurship. Before, it was something done on the side, an afterthought, and whoever did it had his or her feet to the fire until it was successful. Our idea was to get the whole place aligned.”

[by David Schwartz - Tech Transfer eNews Blog]

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