Building your Brand as a Technological Innovator (with Dr. Cale Lennon)

The third session of the 2014 Dental Innovation Forum, which followed Dr. Ashley Stevens’ presentation on Making the Most of Patenting and Commercialization Opportunities, focused on branding strategies for innovators.

Appropriately enough, this presentation was given by Dr. Cale Lennon, Director of Licensing at Emory University’s Office of Technology Transfer. During his 14-year tenure in university technology transfer, Cale has managed the licensing of multiple biomedical-related technologies, including therapeutics, medical devices, diagnostics, genomics, and software and research tools.

While at Emory, he developed and led various functional units within the Office of Technology Transfer, including licensing, patent management, MTA contracting, compliance, and marketing. Before joining Emory, Cale worked in the Office of Technology Transfer and Business Development at Tulane University, where he held the positions of Senior Licensing Associate, Associate Director, and Interim Executive Director.

He earned an M.B.A. from Tulane University and a doctorate in genetics and molecular biology from Emory University. Cale also holds the holds the Certified Licensing Professional and Certified Research Administrator credentials.

Strategies for Survival in the Beautiful, Inhospitable Tech Transfer Environment

Cale compared the technology transfer environment, a landscape that must be crossed on the long journey from the lab to the marketplace, to Saudi Arabia’s Rubʿ al Khali desert: “very beautiful, but the climate is inhospitable.”

“We’ve had faculty members who taught me when I was a Ph.D. student at Emory who’ve actually shut down their research labs and retired because they could not obtain funding to keep their labs open,” said Cale. “However, in contrast with a very challenging environment for basic research funding, I want to let you know that there are some real opportunities that are emerging for investigators who want to work.”

He then offered the following strategies for navigating this difficult terrain while building a strong brand as a technological innovator.

1. Form relationships with Big Pharma to plant the seeds for future collaboration.

Cale pointed out that Big Pharma has suffered a productivity crisis in recent years. As a result, drug companies have scaled back on their research and development funds.

“Now Big Pharma is a manufacturing-distribution-marketing-sales oriented venture, and the pipeline for its new products is coming from the outside sources,” said Cale. “And so this is where the opportunity lies. Because of this fundamental shift, there is a great desire on the part of pharmaceutical companies to actually partner up.”

He then cited GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Merck as examples of drug companies that have recently taken on partnerships.

According to Cale, Director Chris Yochim of AstraZeneca told Emory’s Vice President of Research how AstraZeneca forms partnerships: sending 30 or 40 technical representatives to major academic conferences with the goal of sparking collaborations with academic scientists who are conducting research in areas of interest to the company.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Cale, in summary. “If you have these relationships from the start, this could lead to the larger partnerships.”

2. Reach out to private foundations.

Cale emphasized the rise of the venture philanthropy model, which is emerging among disease-focused foundations. Basically, this model takes ideas and strategies from venture capital finance and uses them to improve the human condition.

“The way this works is that private foundations are fundamentally changing the way that they operate,” said Cale. “They are doing more projects that have milestones, are milestone-driven, and also they’re providing a lot more support. Resources. They’re providing legal support, they’re providing regulatory support, things like that.”

While he warned that it has become more challenging to work with foundations, as they are increasingly focused on receiving a return on investment, foundations provide great value through their connections to opinion leaders.

3. Look into biomarkers research.

A biomarker is an indicator that gives a medical professional information about a patient’s condition or state.

This ties in with the growing promise of personalized medicine and dentistry, which aims to customize care based on each patient’s genetic information.

“When Chris Yochim was giving his keynote address, he basically said that biomarkers were huge right now. The most valuable ones, too, are the biomarkers that actually alter the course of therapy,” said Cale.

4. Consider research in the fields of medical record system development and health care information technology.

Alongside the rise of new medicines and therapeutics, new technologies have also been developed in the fields of medical records system development and health care information technology.

In terms of records system development, Cale cited a partnership established last December among 3 universities that teamed up with ICE Health Systems to create a comprehensive dental records system.

He also mentioned the possibility of developing an app that would serve the same basic purpose.

“70 percent of apps are developed at a cost of under $100,000,” said Cale.

Citing the low barriers to entry in these areas of technological research, Cale encouraged innovators to consider records development and health care IT as potential areas of focus.

Strategies for Building your Brand as an Innovator

Finally, Cale gave the audience an introduction to branding.

“Individuals can also have a brand,” said Cale. “It’s the way that you’re perceived professionally. It’s the way that the individuals notice our talents and our skills.”

He offered the following 5 branding strategy suggestions, based on his own experiences:

1. Always create a prototype.

According to Cale, prototyping is very important for two main reasons.

First, it provides credibility in the eyes of potential commercial partners.

Furthermore, from an intellectual property protection standpoint, it allows an inventor to work out the most important features of their invention. This makes it easier for a patent attorney to craft a strategy for successfully patenting that invention.

2. Show how your invention stacks up against the competition.

Cale said that it’s common for a researcher to come to him with a new invention backed by outstanding scientific data, yet have no data on how that invention stands up against currently available, state-of-the-art commercial offerings.

“Companies want to see this,” emphasized Cale. “They want to see how technology slices up to the competition.”

3. For drug research, use an experimental model that Big Pharma is comfortable with.

“Sometimes what we found is that pharmaceutical companies may feel that an academically-accepted model is not the best tool for their purposes,” warned Cale.

That’s why Cale said that innovators should check with drug companies about their preferred experimental models, either during the process of setting up a collaboration or just while meeting representatives. He said that’s the best path to generating data that the drug company is comfortable with and provides them with the most value.

4. Be persistent through trials and failures.

Through the story of Sir James Dyson, Cale stressed the importance of patience and persistence.

“He built a billion dollar business with selling vacuum cleaners,” said Cale. “And it took him 15 years to actually come up with what he thought was the best design. And during those 15 years, 5,127 prototypes. So that’s a lot of design iterations. Now he may have been a perfectionist to the extreme, but he did yield success. So his persistence is a good example, and especially because it’s such a long road to patent technologies and for marketplaces to embrace them.”

5. Have a strong value proposition.

Cale defined an invention’s value proposition as “what defines the strength of the technology; how you’re better than the competition; and basically what makes individuals say, ‘I want that.’”

He used Square, a mobile payments provider, as an example of a company with an outstanding value proposition: anyone with a smartphone can accept payment anywhere.

Simply put, a strong value proposition is very powerful.

In summary, Cale said that a key strategy to becoming an innovator is to recognize changes. From Big Pharma collaborations to venture philanthropy to biomarkers to health care records and technology, important trends are transforming society all around us.

“Look around yourself and ask; what are the important things that are happening that are transforming a society? Next, look inside yourself and say, ‘Now, how can I apply those changes to my work in that space?’”

With the increased importance of branding being one of these important trends, Cale said to “focus on your brand recognition so you can be a recognized as a researcher who is generating new and valuable discoveries.”

So, how well do you think Cale’s advice applies to your own field? Please leave your comments below, and check back for the final article in my 2014 Dental Innovation Forum series.

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