An interview with Nichole Mercier conducted by Michele Hujber.
When Nichole Mercier took the position as assistant vice chancellor and managing director of the Office of Technology Management (OTM) at Washington University (WashU), her head was bursting with creative ideas for the office. However, before she could focus on the “creative” parts, she spent some time familiarizing herself with the technology transfer landscape at the university.
Mercier also bolstered her staff with four new hires. She started out searching for candidates on her own, but also reached out to Vortechs Group for assistance. “They were able to serve us candidates that we probably wouldn’t have been able see but for going with Vortechs,” she said.
Vortechs recruited four licensing managers for the office, and these new hires are having a significant impact on the successes of OTM. In the four years since Mercier has been managing director of the office, there has been a 50% increase in the number of invention disclosures. There has also been an 83% increase in “for-fee” agreements, which include fee-bearing material transfer agreements, exclusive license agreement, non-exclusive license agreements, option agreements, and startup companies. The office has also doubled its patent filings. Also, in the last four years, 32 university startups have launched, which is 43% of all WashU startups based on university intellectual property, and the office has driven a 2-fold increase in licenses, including six to seven high-dollar-value new partnerships.
Mercier speaks highly of her experience with Vortechs. “We’ve had a great experience with Vortechs,” she said. “They took a lot of time to get to know us as an office and they put a lot of good candidates in front of us. It was hard to decide who was the right fit for the office, because there were so many good candidates. I think they really cared about that it was a good fit for us.”
More about the Office of Technology Management
Apropos of Mercier’s comment about Vortechs getting to know their clients, we wanted to find out more about OTM. So, during our recent conversation, we asked some questions. This is what we learned:
Now that she has built a solid foundation for her office, Mercier is strengthening WashU’s industry engagement strategy and building a finely-tuned marketing apparatus.
The first step towards building an industry engagement strategy is to assess the strengths of the university in both the research and innovation. “We have strengths in research areas where we actually don’t see a whole lot of innovation,” said Mercier. “It’s not that it’s not there, but maybe that culture doesn’t exist in the department. So, we’re trying to pilot in departments that have a history of being innovative and where we have seen successful partnering of technology.”
At the same time that Mercier is learning more about research and innovation at the university, she is also researching the needs of industry partners. She is identifying three to five companies with whom her office can have repeated, in-depth conversations about potential opportunities within the a specific sector. She wants to know who is acquiring companies or investing in the industry space and to be able to anticipate the future needs of the industry. Armed with this knowledge, Mercier will be able to compare those needs with what she has learned about current research and innovation at WashU. Then she’ll do some matchmaking.
So far, Mercier has identified 20 technologies at WashU that are prime candidates for industry commercialization and a high-touch effort to partner. She has had 110 separate conversations with companies about the potential value of these technologies to industry. “[We’re finding out] the level of effort needed to partner this technology or getting enough feedback to know what to do with it,” said Mercier.
Meanwhile, Mercier is building a marketing function to promote promising technologies at WashU. She has created a position in her office for someone to focus on this task. “If you don’t have somebody dedicated to that function in your office, it tends to get lost among all of the other aspects that the licensing team has to do,” said Mercier. Mercier calls her system “The Crank,” because it’s a device ready to “crank out marketing campaigns.”
When it comes to marketing, it also helps if faculty can be the ambassadors of their own technology. This involves “helping faculty to understand the market side of their tech and working with them so that they feel confident when they go to a conference and interact with an industry rep,” said Mercier. “We’re trying to find opportunities where faculty can go and pitch in front of VCs and be strategic if they’re interested in starting a company. So, we’re working with faculty to get them prepared for these opportunities, or just any opportunity that comes up.”
OTM is also building relationships with other offices at WashU that interact with industry. She meets regularly with Alumni and Development Programs. “They’ve been immensely helpful in getting us into companies that we’ve had trouble getting into,” said Mercier. “We’ve also done more to partner with them when they’re seeing industry, whether they just go in to speak about a gift or they want to think about a gift in the context of innovation. We’ve had those discussions, where in the past we’ve been very disconnected. So, it’s a fluid partnership for both groups.”
Mercier’s group also assists the Office of Sponsored Research Services and the Office of the Dean at the School of Medicine with master research agreements. “Even though we’re not responsible for sponsored research,” said Mercier, “we’re going out and sourcing potential proposals and making sure that there are no lagging strings to any other agreement, or that if it needs to be confidential, we’re making sure that it is.”
OTM also collaborates with the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. When Mercier arrived at WashU, the center did not have a mission to serve the faculty. But since then, they have expanded their mission to include faculty entrepreneurs. “It’s helped to elevate the level of knowledge of our faculty in putting together pitches to compete,” said Mercier. It’s also given [OTM] a platform where we now work with the same population.”
The biggest challenge that Mercier has encountered in her four years is funding. Although she has increased all the activities in her office, sometimes budgeting for increased activity takes time to catch up. “Sometimes you have to prove that before you get there,” she said. “Each year we’re gap-stopping our patent budget with support of the university, but the longer term solution will take time.”
Mercier’s solutions include working with law firms to create a pricing structure. She has also hired two patent agents to draft and prosecute applications and filings within her office. “We’re probably getting a two to one dollar return on each of them,” she said.
Mercier also notes that there is a new chancellor at WashU and that there will soon be a new provost. “So, while a lot of these changes at our university take place and we’re doing good things, we’re [also] figuring out how to keep this going amidst change. I know that I’ve got to do this for a few more years before we can dovetail with new university strategy.”
Four years in, Mercier has established OTM as a place that drives innovation at WashU. One gets the impression that she’s just getting started, and that there will be even more impressive outcomes from the office in the future.
Visit https://otm.wustl.edu/ to learn more about the Office of Technology Management at WashU.