"MIT spins out over 32 startup companies per year approximately, and we have about 358 companies that are still alive, so the ecosystem is functioning well."

Lesley Millar-Nicholson


April 20, 2021

What role do universities play in driving innovation in the life sciences?

Universities are fundamentally about teaching, research and service, while tech transfer and commercialization are often seen as the fourth leg economic development part of the missions. Ultimately everything a university does revolves around these missions. Therefore, all of the research being done, regardless of whether it is funded by government, corporations or philanthropic organizations, is driven with the idea that students will be taught, research will be conducted  and publications will be created. Ultimately, some of it is going to translate into commercial opportunity, but the key thing for universities is that they can invest in areas that large corporations typically do not. Increasingly you see corporations coming to universities or working in public-private partnerships to advance ideas that they might have done themselves in prior years.

Looking at MIT specifically, we do not have a medical school, therefore we develop partnerships with our surrounding ecosystem. These include other universities, hospitals and corporate partners. Many great ideas come out of MIT, but we cannot translate them without help. For the university it is about pulling together the smarts, intellect and funding, and then finding the right partners to help translate it. One of the strengths of MIT is this ecosystem that enables entrepreneurship and translational research to occur.

How specifically does the Tech Licensing Office assist the MIT community and move ideas forward to real world application?

Every year we are seeing over 800 new ideas coming in the door. I think that is the highest level of annual inventions of any university in the world. We have a responsibility as part of our mission to get these technologies into the hands of people that can develop them and take them out the door. Some of them are patentable while others are not. We have a staff of 50, and the licensing group has a staff of 18. We also have an essential infrastructure in terms of finance, IP, patenting, marketing and communications.. About 60% of the research funding that we see coming in comes from the federal government and about 22% comes from corporate entities. The remainder is a balance of state and other funding. That drives our obligations with sponsors.

Corporate sponsors might have a specific interest and reason why they made a contract with MIT, and therefore we follow their lead. The federal requirements are driven by federal agencies, such as NSF, DOD or DOE. That is why we have a corporate and federal compliance team and we have a responsibility to report every invention that has federal funding back to the federal government and tell them what it is and what we intend to do with it. If we decide that we want to commercialize something, we have to tell them and comply with their timelines.

If you look at our licensing record, you will see that we predominantly license to startup companies for exclusive licenses. That tells you that the technology we are seeing is so early stage that large companies are probably not going to invest in it. For non-exclusive licenses that might be more ubiquitous, large companies can be more prepared to come along because it either needs less development or it is ready to go. Our day to day is that process of receipt of an invention disclosure, an assessment and patent filing, some marketing, working with parties who are interested in licensing it, negotiating licenses, and getting it out of the door. At the back end, we manage the licenses and any revenue that comes in. We then distribute revenue to inventors, the departments, joint owners and the university itself.

What are some areas of health related scientific research that MIT is particularly strong in?

Some of our strengths are in biological engineering and synthetic biology. People like Angela Belcher, Linda Griffith, Angela Kohler, Ed Boyden, Jim Collins, are all renowned in their field. The Picower Institute, McGovern Institute, Broad Institute, and Whitehead are also seen as leaders in the field of brain research. Additionally, the work of Dan Anderson and Bob Langer in drug delivery using nanotechnologies has been pioneering. Finally, the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute has established itself as a global leader in the field of gene editing.

Looking at companies specifically, Editas does gene editing and was licensed through the Broad Institute and continues to make advances, Frequency Therapeutics has a regenerative technology focused on hearing, and is doing very well, Beam Therapeutics had a very successful IPO in 2020, Taris Biomedical, which focused on bladder cancer, was bought by JNJ last year, and Alnylam continues to bring innovation to the world through its RNAI technology. MIT spins out over 32 startup companies per year approximately, and we have about 358 companies that are still alive, so the ecosystem is functioning well.


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