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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 31, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 20
A 'Paradigm Shift' for Tech Transfer

Jill Sorensen, the newly appointed associate provost and director of the Office of Licensing and Technology Development, will begin work at JHU on March 1.

Goal is to get faculty's discoveries quickly into widespread use

By Dennis O'Shea

Technology transfer. It's about the money, sure. But it's not all about the money. What it's really about, says Jill Sorensen, is getting the faculty's discoveries and inventions quickly into widespread use — by physicians, businesses, even consumers — and thereby improving health, standards of living and society in general.

Academic tech transfer in this country is beginning to undergo a "paradigm shift," said Sorensen, newly appointed associate provost and director of the university's Office of Licensing and Technology Development.

"I would like to be involved in leading that shift here at Johns Hopkins," said Sorensen, former director of the Office of Technology Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The new view of tech transfer, she said, must focus not necessarily on maximizing revenue but rather on "stewardship that sometimes generates money, and sometimes creates nonmonetary benefits, like improving public health."

"If you judge the success of the technology transfer of a vaccine, for example, just in monetary terms, you lose sight of the benefits of vaccinating people," she said. "In fact, the majority of the benefit may be in public health."

That's not to say that the potential financial returns from a licensing deal or from a faculty-led startup company are unimportant, Sorensen said. Licensing royalties and equity stakes in new companies can provide important incentives for faculty and help underwrite new research initiatives for the university.

But Sorensen agrees with Vice Provost for Research Ted Poehler, members of the university's new technology transfer users group and others at Johns Hopkins who believe that too narrow a focus on maximizing profit can slow or even stall the process of bringing a discovery to market.

"You want to return a reasonable royalty," she said. "You should know your business, know your markets, know what a reasonable range of royalty is and negotiate the best deal you can. But time also is money, so being prompt and responsive also defines professionalism. The harder a bargain you drive, the longer each deal takes. It's just one more very important factor to weigh into the mix. You can jeopardize getting technology into use and development without a proper balance of these different value sets."

Sorensen, who will begin work March 1, will head a 25-person office working with faculty in the university's eight schools (APL has its own tech transfer office). She expects to spend a good part of her first year implementing a more decentralized structure within the office, assigning knowledgeable staff to work with faculty in individual schools, developing skilled specialists in particular areas of tech transfer and automating as much of the work as possible.

"Jill is an outstanding person, smart, articulate and a good manager," Poehler said. "She's the right person to help us achieve our goal: to get our technology out into the marketplace and get it used, to move it out the door more quickly and less bureaucratically."

The key to successful technology transfer, Sorensen said, is to work closely with and in the interests of both faculty inventors and the businesses that hope to take Johns Hopkins inventions into the marketplace.

"The faculty are front and center," Sorensen said. "They drive the best that the university has to offer, and a quality intellectual property system works with them and for them."

Sorensen is an intellectual property lawyer with nearly 20 years of law and business experience. She has spent 18 of those years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was assistant and then associate university counsel beginning in 1987. In 1998, she became director of technology management and assistant vice chancellor for research, reorganizing the office along a decentralized model responsive to the needs of the university's schools and faculty. In five years, her office nearly doubled the university's invention disclosures and the number of licenses it executed. The office also promoted new models of technology transfer, including leveraging intellectual property, particularly in global health, for sustainable economic development in developing countries.

In 2003, she won UIC's Chancellor's Academic Professional Excellence Award for job performance above and beyond the call of duty. Last year, she assumed a new position as director of health initiatives, building international partnerships focused on global health.

Sorensen is a 1981 graduate of Northwestern University and earned her law degree in 1985 from DePaul University. She has also done graduate study in chemistry at University of Illinois at Chicago.


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