There are times where opportunities are not present in our environment, so sometimes it’s necessary to make them. Like the famous paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson said, “one must take initiative in life to achieve what he or she wants.”
That is exactly what Laura Prestia, Ph.D., and her colleagues, Robert Sons, Ph.D., and Alan Alfano, Ph.D., did in 2016 when they started the Technology Transfer Ambassadors Program (TTAP). When Prestia first came to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a Ph.D. fellow in technology transfer, she and her colleagues noticed that there was no program to help lab-based fellows learn about this field. They decided to create an opportunity for scientists to gain experience in this area.
Prestia and colleagues developed the TTAP to spread the idea of tech transfer to other people and teach them about commercialization and patenting without requiring them to leave a lab career. Over the past few years, Prestia and the TTAP team leads have molded the program into a thriving hands-on training experience for scientists across the NIH.
Training new generations of scientists is one of NCI’s responsibilities under the Public Health Service Act, and technology transfer is a long-standing goal and requirement for helping the public benefit from federal inventions. Today, the TTAP boosts NIH’s efforts in both areas.
It helps participants develop skills that are applicable for positions ranging from tech transfer managers and patent specialists to industry scientists, health policy analysts, and others. Participants say it’s a fun experience that provides networking opportunities and a diverse set of expertise in the legal and business fields—from how intellectual property law works to how inventions from NIH are patented, marketed, and commercialized.
Welcome to Boot Camp
The application process begins every summer, with a November 1 deadline. Applicants complete a cover letter (a general statement of interest) and write a three-paragraph technology summary abstract.
Then comes a 2.5-month-long boot camp that consists of weekly interactive lectures and homework assignments so participants can interact with technology transfer material through hands-on learning. The boot camp builds toward participants’ final presentations, which incorporate everything learned in the last few months. Participants who pass the boot camp are inducted into the program. They gain access to special workshops and monthly meetings, working within the NCI Technology Transfer Center (TTC) to plunge into real-world tech transfer topics. Every September, ambassadors have the opportunity to present a business pitch for an invention at the Technology Showcase, an annual event where new inventions from NCI and Frederick National Laboratory are pitched to industry stakeholders for licensing and collaboration.
Working beyond the Lab
The TTAP welcomes individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds and launches them into diverse career paths. Bench scientists have found rewarding positions in tech transfer, translating cancer research into clinical medicines and products. Lidia Beka, Ph.D., and Suna Gulay-French, Ph.D., are recent TTAP alumni who gained insight into their current careers thanks to the program.
Beka started out as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), participated in TTAP, and shifted her career: she left NIAID to work at a patent law firm, and has returned to the NCI TTC to pursue a career in technology transfer. Gulay-French began as a postdoctoral fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and is now a technology transfer manager and TTAP team lead at NCI’s TTC.
Beka discovered TTAP through patent attorneys in the DC area who were also former NIH postdocs involved in the program. Intrigued, she decided to take part.
"I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from week to week," she said.
The lectures complemented Beka’s interest in patent law by introducing her to how NIH inventions were patented. The boot camp and assessments allowed her to try new interests with which she had no prior experience, such as a market investigation.
“TTAP displayed a theme that embodies the intersection between the business, legal, and scientific world,” she said.
The lessons of drafting a patent application and learning the different types of licenses, agreements, and contracts from the TTAP have helped her pursue her new career paths outside of the lab.
“TTAP was a lot of fun,” Beka said, pointing out that this program goes beyond a training camp.
Gulay-French was introduced to the TTAP through graduate courses at NIH. The TTAP contacted training directors who recommended her to the program. Similar to Beka, she learned about inventions, patentability, and tech marketing through the program’s lectures and assignments. As a researcher at NICHD, she wasn’t used to thinking of how to make research applicable to the bigger picture. This changed as she got involved.
“The program offered me experience in learning how to work in an office environment and how to work under time constraints through strict deadlines,” Gulay-French said.
This balance of lab work and TTAP work allowed her to build upon her previous projects with NICHD through the new marketing and patenting skills she picked up. The combination helped her present her findings to a nontechnical audience and share important information with people beyond the lab.
Although both Beka and Gulay-French had different career goals and ambitions, they received the same support from the TTAP. Along with the technical and hands-on activities, participants are offered the opportunity to work with teams and network. Beka is still close to many of the people who were a part of her mini-group sessions.
Begin Your Own Journey Here
The TTAP lets postdoctoral fellows, staff scientists and clinicians, graduate students, and postbaccalaureate trainees work outside of their labs in the boot camp, seminars, and group projects and gives them a chance to network with professionals in tech transfer, law, and business.
“TTAP opened doors for me,” Gulay-French said.
It’s competitive to join, so it requires motivated individuals who are willing to put in effort. It isn't limited only to those interested in technology transfer but is open to staff and trainees who want a chance to develop skills that are applicable in many careers.
Like Prestia says, “It is a tough program, but the skills acquired give scientists a new language to speak.”
Interested NIH trainees and staff scientists/clinicians can start their journey by visiting the Technology Transfer Ambassador Program’s website.
Those with questions about the TTAP can contact Laura Prestia (firstname.lastname@example.org) or any of the TTAP team leads listed on the TTAP website.
Jiayi Wang is a Werner H. Kirsten intern at the National Cancer Institute at Frederick where she works alongside her mentor, analyzing scientific articles and generating hypothetical research theses.