July 19, 2004

Emory Profile: Todd Sherer
Ticket to Transfer


By Eric Rangus

PowerPoint slides are wonderful things. They can sum up the responsibilities of an entire office of people--and even diffuse a bit of controversy--all in the space on one nice, neat, landscaped page.

Todd Sherer has one such PowerPoint slide in a binder in his office. Part of a larger presentation, the slide outlines the seemingly incompatible interests and goals of nonprofit universities and for-profit companies. They work together all the time--whether this is good or bad is up for interpretation (that happens all the time, too)--but the relationships between universities and the marketplace are only becoming stronger.

Sherer's slide makes no editorial comments. It simply, in white print on a blue background, sketches out the situation and briefly defines the role of the Emory office he has directed since October--the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).

"Cultural differences exist between the university and industry," said Sherer, who came to Emory after three years as director of technology and research collaborations at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. He also directed the University of Oregon's Office of Technology Transfer for three and a half years.

"In a university, we pursue knowledge for knowledge sake; industry manages knowledge for profit," he continued. Those themes are printed on opposite sides of the slide. Below that in ovals are the general activities of each side: university (teaching, research, service, economic development) and industry (profits, product research and development).

Where those ovals overlap is the responsibility of and justification for OTT: commercialization of new and useful technologies. "That's what we do," Sherer said. "We're not the ones who develop the product. We're not the ones who make the discovery. We're the ones who facilitate communications and emphasize this overlap between these two worlds where the 'commercialization of new and useful technologies' is going to happen."

And there is no denying the impact and revenue generated by products and technologies originating at Emory. In fiscal years 2002 and 2003 Emory's share of net fees and royalties from patents was almost $48 million. Because of the way the market works, that figure should rise significantly in the coming years.

For instance, payment on drug discoveries--a major area of technology transfer at Emory although there are many others (such as medical devices and diagnostic technology)--is spread out over a long period of time, Sherer said. The University receives money when the technology is transferred to a company, but that amount is relatively small. But it's when the drug hits the market--some take more than 10 years to make their way to pharmacy and hospital shelves--that royalty payments, which often are very significant, begin rolling in.

While the numbers OTT deals with are impressive as well as newsworthy, they simply are byproducts of the office's mission to protect the University's intellectual property rights.

"As recipients of federal funding, we are mandated by law to make intellectual property rights benefit the public when possible and feasible," Sherer said. "The good news is in pursuing that public mission, we have an opportunity to bring revenues back to the university through licensing activities, and we can use revenue to subsidize research and education."

Without OTT, which came into being in 1985 but didn't really ramp up until the 1990s, Emory and its researchers would probably find themselves meeting with a lot of lawyers discussing contracts.

"Companies that supply monies to the university have expectations that they are going to be the beneficiaries of inventions," Sherer said. "In addition to that, it would be even more difficult to get our products out onto the market because the rights wouldn't be secured. This could hinder the ability to get new products on the market, which means the public wouldn't benefit as often."

Sherer deals with a lot of thorny issues, yet he is able to discuss them easily. With more than 14 years' experience in technology transfer, he's had a good bit of time work through a lot of the bumps of the practice. He learned the industry perspective on things while on the job, but he had quite a bit of knowledge of the academic side from the get-go.

Coming out of school, Sherer originally thought of becoming a research scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in toxicology and molecular biology at Washington State University, and in 1991, just after earning his degree, Sherer had an invitation for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

For extra cash as a graduate student, he had been working in WSU's patent office, which was expanding. A licensing associate position had been created and it was offered to Sherer, who now was faced with a major decision. For a young scientist looking for some more experience, the fellowship was a no-brainer. But the licensing job presented a new challenge in an industry that was just beginning to open up.

"What intrigued me at the end of the day was that [the licensing job] moved faster," Sherer said, adding that it also paid twice as much as the fellowship. As the parent of a daughter who was just learning to walk (he and wife Allison have three children now, ages 15, 11 and 3), that was not insignificant.

"I got to be exposed to a lot of cutting-edge science," he continued. "I was going to get to work a lot more with people as opposed to locking myself in my office writing manuscripts for peer-reviewed publications and grant applications."

Sherer's move to technology transfer was not his first change of focus. He earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife science at Oregon State University, and while he doesn't get to use the skills he picked up there in his day-to-day career, Sherer was exposed to a practice that has become one of the most distinctive aspects of his life: the sport of falconry.

Sherer first became interested in the sport after meeting a falconer in one of his classes. A niche sport if there ever was one--there are only about 3,000 licensed falconers in North America and many are inactive, Sherer calls his interest an obsession.

"It really takes over your life," he said. "It dictates where you live. There is a lot of time and effort put into training these birds."

Falcons are pretty high maintenance. Ideally, Sherer said, they should be taken out every day. They need a lot of open space, too. While hunting for prey, their speeds can reach 200 miles an hour. Living outside Portland, Ore., Sherer (who once was president of the Oregon Falconers Association) was in a rural area, so that wasn't a problem. He feels a little more of a space crunch in Suwanee, the Atlanta suburb in which he now is settled.

Previously he'd never owned less than three or four falcons (Sherer even bred peregrine falcons for the release in the wild when that bird was on the endangered species list), but he now has just one, Wyatt. He lives in the Sherer basement in a chamber large enough so that he can fly around when he is not hunting.

"It's not so much about catching quarry," Sherer said. "It's about being able to participate and watch them do what they are capable of. They need to catch game on a regular basis; if they don't they'll have their confidence blown."

Sherer's move to Georgia required some changes--he found homes in Oregon for some of his birds that didn't make the trip--but there is no question that he feels the eventual payoff, not unlike some of the technology transfer projects he oversees, will be worth it.

"I have a goal to work at a Top 10 university, and I am convinced that Emory not only has its sights set on getting there but it's taking the steps a university actually has to take to get there," he said. "I want to help build something like that."