Anthony Francis, Director of The Office of Technology Management

Anthony joined Innovation Ventures in the spring of 2019 to lead the Office of Technology Management after an extensive career in technology management and transfer in Australia, most recently as the managing director of GP Partners, a group investing in primary care innovations made through their own accelerator team.

Anthony has spent the last 25 years deeply engaged with researchers, commercial partners and investors, creating new ways to achieve success. Because it is often administrative issues that slow innovation and frustrate inventors and partners alike, Anthony excels at cutting through “red tape” and confusion about business models by intervening personally to find solutions that benefit all stakeholders.

We interviewed Anthony via Zoom from his family’s home in Australia during the COVID 19 pandemic.

SK: Can you tell me what your biggest challenge at the University has been with managing academic discoveries?

AF: I think the translation of academic discovery is probably the biggest challenge that I face every day. That is, taking something from the bench to the patient. Doing that requires more market research and different skills than the University has at its beck and call. Adding those skills and adding those processes to the end point of a researcher’s work has been the biggest challenge. The University should understand that there's life beyond the research that they're doing. Therefore, trying to get the University and the researchers to recognized that additional skills are needed to bring something to market.

SK: What makes your approach to technology management different from your predecessors?

AF: Recognizing the gap between the “bench” and the “user,” is the key difference. If you drill into that, it sounds simple, but it's actually not often done. Take that logical thought just a step further and say “okay, now we're going to think what those steps might be to actually add value and also increase the chances of success.” For a research outcome to become useful to someone, you first of all have to analyze what the user thinks and what they need. Actually working out how the research outcome varies from the user experience is the step that most universities don't bother taking. They see it as a very linear process; “how do I move this forward in a technical way?” And not, “how do I adapt this to make it work as a product?” So that’s a subtle difference.

It should be easy, and when you talk to commercial folks, they see all our discoveries as potential products. That simple piece – trying to work out what is required to make a discovery more usable, is often forgotten at the University. What we’re doing at UCSF, even before we discuss the licensing process, is market research. We identify what things are needed to bring this product or service to market, and from that we start next steps depending on whether or not this is of value to the market. That subtle difference is really big because it shapes how our office determines what services to add rather than just going along a linear path – perhaps to nowhere.

SK: Understanding the markets and getting a better sense of your products. That sounds to me like starting a business. Why is it important to have an entrepreneurial attitude at an academic institution?

AF: It's a good question. I think it lies at the heart of what I'm explaining. There are certain steps that need to be taken to engage users, or engage a market, or just to get more utility out of our research. One of those steps is to take an entrepreneurial approach. Business is never simply a straight line; it's a rocky path, and entrepreneurs tend to deal well with ambiguities around a deal. They also tend to deal with failure a lot better than most of us and so entrepreneurs, if you like, are really a key part of that process. Not, of course, the be all, end all, of that process, but a key part. It's really a partnership between the researcher and a group like Innovation Ventures, where we're steering the ship or pulling the levers, trying to understand what's important and when best to implement. Because if we bring an entrepreneur in too soon, we could wreck some projects because they're not ready for that aspect just yet. But bringing one in too late could be frustrating as well because the technology may miss the market. That kind of timing becomes really essential in our mix, but again, it's not just one piece.

Having that entrepreneurial culture somewhere in the University is great, but we don't necessarily want that culture to bleed into the actual technology development. It's a tricky mix lies at the very heart of why many universities don't deem it necessary at all.

SK: It sounds like Innovation Ventures, or at least your office inside of Innovation Ventures, is really trying to become that connector.

AF: We're taking stock, if you like, of what's coming out of the University, and in doing so we have the pivotal position of being able to work out what's next. What do we do with that technology? Do we straight away license it? Do we add something? Do we need something else? So, ours is a pivotal role, we’re the guys at the end of the factory production line turning around and figuring out what work it needs to get to the market. What do we need to do to actually have someone then take it off the other end and use it? There are multiple steps along the way.

I don't want to overstate our importance, because I think that's the other problem a lot of tech transfer offices have, they kind of put themselves in a position of a monopoly, or they think that they own that process. We don't necessarily own it, but we add value to it. We try and add value for our researchers by facilitating the whole process of development and commercialization. ‘Facilitate’ is the best word we could use to describe what we do.

SK: Who or what benefits most from your approach, and how do they benefit?

AF: It's a multi-layered benefit. Let’s start from a corporate level and work our way all the way down to a researcher level. At the corporate level, there are the obvious benefits that when we get this right, we could make a lot of money. We could hit a home run and produce revenue for the University that is well deserved beyond just the general revenue that we get from government research grants and student fees. I should say the money has an obvious benefit, but you know really that's not the only concern. For the University we are able to demonstrate that our research goes somewhere meaningful. That we're not just a bunch of scientists playing in a lab, disconnected from community. Because if you're disconnected from community and perceived as a bunch of mad scientists, then governments aren't going to fund your work. It's a loop. When we show that we are relevant, that our outcomes are achieving value, then we get to do more research because in fact our governments trust us. The people trust us. The average consumer understands our value. Having that trust is actually greater than the revenue.

The more we demonstrate our value the more we can actually bank it in other ways. We can turn that value into more students, a greater reputation, all sorts of ways beyond dollars. When it comes down to the researcher level, I think you can even say that having a researcher just deliver things of value can give a competitive advantage in their ability to receive grants. Because having had a product that's gone to market, that’s made someone better, that’s improved lives, the next time you apply for a grant it's going to be a competitive advantage for the researcher. From an organizational point of view having that sort of “can do” attitude throughout the University is good.

Finally, of course, the researchers can make a lot of money in the process if they're in the right spot. I guess it's the same benefit for both the researcher and the organization.

SK: How do you see the future of technology management at UCSF?

AF: I think it's exciting. We're opening “the can,” if you like, on being able to do things differently. But I think it's going to be very much a researcher led endeavor though in terms of implementation once our value becomes more known. The exciting part is that we're not even sure where this journey will go. We think that we’ll be able to be of value to our researchers, to be of value to the University.

Our new approach is also finding its place at an optimal time. Overall, universities are coming upon times where two things have become obvious; first the pandemic is showing us that you can no longer rely on traditional forms of Revenue. You've got to create new revenue, and this is actually a great opportunity. Secondly, it's also great for the whole country – if we can get this right. We're potentially at the forefront of swinging our economy into mimicking a start-up, you know, like a new business, which is a way better and a much stronger economic model. In the past we relyed on old industries that were, quite frankly running out. Now, it’s like a “reset” and young researchers that agree might want to pursue this. Really there's no better time than now to jump in.

SK: Is there anything you would want to relate to the research community at UCSF that they might not know about office of technology management?

AF: I think our changes haven't necessarily hit everyone yet. I guess at one layer it will be that we have changed, and we want to be – we aim to be – useful. And we aim to give (the University) market research as a first step, which is even in itself quite handy as a tool or a guide. So, the first thing to recognize is that we've become more useful. The second thing is, and this is probably more from experience, that as people understand us better – we're not here to turn researchers into entrepreneurs – we are here to essentially let the researcher understand what it is that the commercial pathway might be and then participate however they like.

There is no ‘set it and forget it.’ There's no model that we're following in terms of saying that you have to be an entrepreneur. In fact, quite the contrary, we prefer researchers stay as researchers and for us to actually take the lead on the things that they're not necessarily as skillful as they might like to be. Or in fact, they probably don't want to be. They would rather be researchers.

The message is you can participate however you like in the process. You don't have to necessarily be an entrepreneur. Let’s all aim for our work to be used and let the benefits appear in our wake.