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Achieving gender equity in tech transfer

New research guides university tech transfer offices like WARF to cultivate women inventors

Jennifer Gottwald, director of licensing at WARF, wants as many UW-Madison inventors as possible to disclose their ideas to WARF and pursue patenting. Women comprise just 12.8% of total inventor-patentees in the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so Gottwald knows there’s plenty of untapped potential.

“My job is to license the technologies we have at WARF and find commercial partners for our patents,” she says. “I want to see as many potential patents as possible coming out of UW, so that what I have in my portfolio to offer companies is as complete and high-quality as possible.”

Gottwald and colleagues at university technology transfer offices around the country recently published research on what motivates women inventors to file patents, plus recommendations for tech transfer offices like WARF on cultivating women inventors to progress toward gender parity in innovation. The paper was part of a special edition of Technology & Innovation.

Communicating with researchers about the innovation process

For UW researchers, filing an innovation disclosure with WARF is straightforward, beginning with a conversation with WARF staff. If WARF decides to pursue a patent, the team guides inventors through the process.

After learning about WARF at a department presentation in March 2016, Guelay Bilen-Rosas, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, followed up with WARF about an idea. The team encouraged her to submit an innovation disclosure and decided to patent her idea, awarding her a WARF Innovation Award later that year. She participated in WARF’s Accelerator program in 2017 and was the first UW-Madison School of Medicine faculty member to receive a WARF Accelerator Phase 2 award. She now holds four patents, which are the basis for a new startup opportunity she is pursuing.

“They helped me understand how the process works, educated me on what it means to submit an invention, and explained why it’s important as scientists to share important things that hopefully will have a big impact on humanity,” says Bilen-Rosas. “The process was very friendly and inviting.”

Gottwald emphasizes the importance of sharing ideas with WARF early.

“Women often want things to be complete and finished before sharing them with the world,” says Gottwald. “But the requirement of novelty means we patent things that have maybe only been replicated three times in the lab.”

In addition to supporting researchers throughout the disclosure and patenting process, WARF connects researchers to collaborators on campus and in industry and shares funding and training opportunities.

“We love to hear about research, even if it’s not an invention we can take in now and protect through patenting,” Gottwald says. “Knowing about research can help us connect faculty with other researchers on campus and with companies, funding sources and other opportunities.”

Reasons and incentives to participate in the tech transfer process

Gottwald and her co-authors found that in addition to being motivated to obtain research and development resources and collaborations, women academics are motivated to disclose ideas that have a direct impact on people in their communities and throughout the world.

“We’re your partner to give your research a real-world application, and we can connect you to companies, resources and education that can help you beyond publication,” Gottwald says. “If you want your research to be applied in the near term, we’re your partner to do that.”

Professor of Pediatrics at the State Hygiene Lab Mei Baker has worked with WARF for about ten years, and several of her inventions have been licensed. Baker says anytime she develops a novel method of solving a practical scientific problem, she talks to WARF.

“I’ve been in basic research my whole career, and solving immediate scientific problems is in my blood, so I’m interested in translational research,” Baker says. “If I find a way to invent something that could have a clinical impact, I submit it to WARF.”

Ann Palmenberg, the Roland Rueckert Professor in the department of biochemistry, files invention disclosures regularly and holds 12 patents.

“No place else does what WARF does, and WARF makes it really streamlined for researchers,” Palmenberg says. “You don’t have to have a marketable idea; just write down what you think is useful and let them make the decision as to whether you file the paperwork for it.”

Palmenberg’s research group generates recombinant materials, and if she needs an antibody or reagent, she makes it herself, so anytime another researcher or company requests access to her materials, she immediately files an invention disclosure with WARF to protect her intellectual property and ensure that any publications or funding generated from it come back to the university.

“My routine is to file IDRs [Innovation Disclosure Reports] before I send stuff out,” she says. “We want to have that IDR coverage, so I don’t send unpublished physical materials out to people and not get anything back.”

Gottwald envisions some ways in which incentives for innovation disclosures can be better aligned with faculty members’ existing priorities.

“Professors are often focused on obtaining tenure for the first five to seven years of their careers, and some universities take patenting into account for faculty tenure packages,” she says. “We’ve thought about recognizing people who are inventing and disclosing inventions in ways that can be reflected in their tenure packages, like small grant programs, awards and other recognitions.”

Bilen-Rosas believes the entire university, not just certain schools and departments, needs to reward innovation and include it in metrics for tenure and promotion.

“The university needs to provide funding and time without penalty to faculty across the university to pursue these activities,” she says. “Something has to measure this activity as success. Otherwise, how many ideas and how much money do we leave on the table, how much growth? I see innovation and potential everywhere.”

Prioritizing inclusive innovation

Gottwald prioritizes inclusive innovation and says WARF continues to work to make tech transfer appealing to a diverse range of scientists.

“What we’re learning about women and the gender gap in patenting can be applied with fine-tuning and nuance to other underrepresented groups,” she says. “How can we change our processes and practices to better meet people from whom we’re not hearing?”

Bilen-Rosas believes WARF is on the right track because of the way WARF guides and supports inventors.

“WARF helped me feel confident about the patenting path and provided programs and mentorship,” says Bilen-Rosas. “WARF is an amazing entity with amazing people. Every single person I met believed in me and my growth and my potential. There is no other space or program like WARF where I felt that way. I am where I am because of WARF.”