From Lab to License: Tech Transfer in Action

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Monell’s mission is to advance scientific knowledge about taste and smell to benefit human health and well-being.

We often talk about our researchers’ lab-based discoveries, but our mission clearly states that it’s not enough to simply learn something new. We also need to transfer that knowledge so it can benefit the public.

That’s where Monell’s Technology Transfer Office comes in.

Since Monell’s expertise lies in basic research and not in developing products and services, we transfer our discoveries to companies that specialize in practical development. This process is called “technology transfer,” or more commonly, “tech transfer.”

And Monell scientists make enough intriguing discoveries to keep Maureen O’Leary, our Director of Technology Transfer, quite busy.

Maureen O'Leary, PhD

Maureen O’Leary, PhD

Monell’s Extraordinary Tech Transfer Success

Indeed, Monell has a disproportionally successful technology transfer program.

An institution’s tech transfer program is often evaluated in relation to the amount of federal funding it receives. Using this measure, Monell should have a licensing “success,” defined as a deal that generates over $200,000, every 80 years or so.

However, in the Center’s first 48 years, Monell has already enjoyed three such successes.

How can we explain this impressive performance?

The first reason directly reflects Monell’s partnerships with corporations from the food, beverage, fragrance, pharmaceutical, chemical, and other industries via our long-standing Corporate Sponsorship Program. As part of that program, which provides unrestricted funding to help support Monell’s research programs, we agree to notify our sponsors first about discoveries and inventions developed by Monell scientists.

Our ongoing relationships with our sponsors provide Dr. O’Leary with the ability to quickly identify companies that might potentially be interested and reach out with targeted recommendations for new opportunities.

Even when a sponsor chooses not to pursue a discovery, they can provide Dr. O’Leary with valuable feedback, including expert knowledge of the specific industry and marketplace that helps guide her ensuing efforts on behalf of any given invention.

The second reason for Monell’s success reflects the Center’s explicit focus on taste and smell.  Because few other organizations can rival our specialized technical expertise in the chemical senses, Monell scientists often are in demand to participate in projects with academic and industrial teams around the world.

As a result, about half of the inventions from Monell are developed by a team that includes at least one scientist from another institution. In this case, Dr. O’Leary works with the partner institution(s) to explore the discovery’s potential. And, with the resources of two or more tech transfer offices behind it, the invention has a greater chance to move towards success.

What’s Involved in Tech Transfer?

Before Dr. O’Leary can coordinate the transfer of a Monell invention, she needs to ensure that the intellectual property is protected. Consider: commercial development can be a lengthy and expensive process, with frankly, a low chance of success. In order to balance the monetary risk involved, the original scientific discovery needs to be protected through a patent – a set of exclusive rights to the discovery for a period of time. The exclusive rights enable the company to avoid competition for a specified period of time, giving them the chance to earn back the costs they put into the development.

In other words, Dr. O’Leary patents Monell discoveries to protect their value, both to the Center and potential developers.

Since a patent cannot be filed once a discovery is disclosed publicly (for example, when it’s published in a scientific journal), patents need to be filed very early in the product development process. Then, when Dr. O’Leary has identified a company that wants to purchase the rights to a Monell discovery, she can transfer the patent along with the invention.

In another impressive showing for an institute of our size, Monell files three to five provisional patents based on the roughly 60 papers published by our scientists each year.

Tech Transfer in Action

Say a Monell scientist walks into the Tech Transfer office with an exciting discovery. She or he has identified a previously unknown anti-inflammatory compound in olive oil that’s as potent as ibuprofen.

Olive oil being poured into a glass bowl White tablets spilling from a medicine bottle

Dr. O’Leary begins by working with the scientist to develop a formal invention disclosure that describes how the team’s discovery might be used to treat a variety of inflammatory conditions, such as neurodegenerative disease or cancer.

To do this, she evaluates the discovery’s possible uses, which includes reaching out to companies that might be interested in using the new compound. In this case, these companies will likely be related to the pharmaceutical industry. She gathers relevant background related to anti-inflammatory medications, patient populations, competitors, and similar products currently in the marketplace.

Next, Dr. O’Leary meets with the scientist-discoverer and the Monell Patent Committee to decide if Monell should patent the discovery. The decision to apply for a patent depends upon a variety of factors, including the potential return on the investment. A patent is most valuable when it is in a field of high interest to companies and contains broad claims. Factors such as the ease of detecting infringement and the ability to enforce the patent are also considered.

Once a patent has been filed, Dr. O’Leary’s next step is to work with interested companies to encourage them to license the patent rights from Monell so they can use the compound.

The real process is often more complicated than this example, of course, but the above story is a simplified version of how tech transfer works. (It also describes a real discovery made at Monell.)

Monell’s Technologies at Work

Although Monell discoveries have been incorporated into products such as deodorants, rodent repellants and kitty litter, our most common tech transfers are research tools, including methodologies and technological approaches. Some such tools are currently being used on behalf of corporate research and development teams to evaluate the taste qualities of salt substitutes or identify compounds to block bitter tastes.

More recently, Monell researchers, lead by Nancy Rawson, PhD, and Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, developed a technology to maintain living human taste cells outside the body. For many years it was believed that taste cells must be attached to nerves in order to regenerate and function properly, but the Monell team proved otherwise.

Now, this “human taste cell culture” technology is an integral part of a recent grant awarded to Monell to improve the taste of lifesaving oral medicines given to children in developing countries.

Other Monell technologies available for licensing are listed on our website’s Technology Transfer page.