In the seventh episode of this podcast series, Jessica Bolton-Murray, Head of Project Management at UCLB, is in conversation with Tanel Ozdemir, Investment Manager for the UCL Technology Fund. The Project Management team at UCLB provides support and direction to any number of project at UCLB, working towards a commercial endpoint. The team have been providing bespoke Project Management services to all UCL Technology Fund projects, since inception in 2016 and have built a close working relationship, enabling them to move funded projects from proof of concept (POC) to licencing. Join them in this light-hearted discussion to find out how to access services, the challenges of POC, and what could be in store for the future.
Transcript edited for clarity and context
Hello and welcome to our seventh episode of the podcast series from UCL Business Big talks on Big Impacts. UCL business or UCLB is the commercialisation company for UCL, and this year-long podcast series celebrates the company’s 30 years of collaboration and impact.
I’m Jess Bolton-Murray, Head of Project Management at UCLB and today, I’m delighted to be joined by Tanel Ozdemir, Investment Manager at UCL Technology Fund.
So today we’re going to be discussing the impact and reach of UCLB’s project management services. The project management team have the ability to support or all UCLB projects from patent through to commercialisation, by coordinating team members to fulfil the scope of the project; be that applying for funding, project planning and budgets, and facilitating agreements. And, of course, reporting to funders and business managers on (the) project progress.
So, Tanel, you’re one of the funders that we work with, UCL Technology Fund. Can you give us a brief introduction to the Technology Fund?
Tanel Ozdemir 2:10
Yep. So hi, Jess, and thanks for the invite. It’s pleasure to be here. So, the UCL Technology Fund or UCLTF for short, is a £125 million venture capital fund, dedicated solely to commercialising and investing in the IP and ideas coming out of UCL. We’ve been around since 2016; the fund was launched in partnership with Albion VC and UCL Business, and I’ve been at the Fund for just over five years now.
Jessica Bolton-Murray 2:37
Brilliant. Thank you. So, project management provides a service to you for your projects. Can you tell us more about what project management team do for you, day to day?
Tanel Ozdemir 2:49
So, the project managers are one of our closest colleagues that we work with every day. And they, not only help us essentially set these investments and products up for success, but help us keep them on track, steer them towards the next milestone, and ultimately, to a successful kind of inflection point. This is helping us keep all the different stakeholders in a project, which sometimes can reach more than 5 -10 people, give them some milestones, and helping us leverage what each stakeholder is good at. I feel like, without them, we would probably struggle to do our day-to-day jobs.
That’s very nice of you to say, and I would definitely agree with you on the coordination side of project management services and sitting in the middle of all of those stakeholders. I certainly feel in my role – it’s a lot about sitting right in the middle of academics and UCLB for the IP side, reporting to the funders and the CROs as well; sitting in the middle of that, coordinating that and navigating that difficult path for setting up a project especially, and then, managing it through all of those processes.
It’s probably worth somewhere like UCL where the research base is so broad. I suspect you probably don’t realise just how varied your job would have been when you first joined UCLB.
But it’s funny, even within the sort of products investments that I have, it does drastically change. Do you, from your experience – are you more in the Life Sciences side or Physical Sciences side, or have you had a good mix throughout?
It’s certainly more on the Life Sciences side at the moment. Our backgrounds are very niche, and that we all have a Life Sciences background that we can draw on.
It’s quite a big debate, I would say, in project management as a topic, as to whether you need to have a strong background in the subject that you’re actually managing, in order to do your job as a project manager. Project management is a career in itself, and our whole team are trained project managers in a mixture of Prince 2 and Agile, for example. But we all have this background that we can draw on that really assists us in those life sciences projects.
Now, as UCLB grows, we have a Physical Sciences and Engineering team as well; and we also have a Social Impacts team. So potentially, in the future, we could look at having project managers with more diverse backgrounds, or maybe even more specific backgrounds that relate to those subject areas as well. I’d say it’s definitely a benefit and it’s certainly a niche role to have a project manager with a strong background in Life Sciences.
Obviously we work with quite a few different investors and funds linked to universities and tech transfer offices; and I feel like it’s quite unique to have a project management capability. So, is that quite unique to UCL, or do you know of our universities that have this capability?
It’s certainly very unique. Other tech transfer offices don’t have a separate project management service. Their business managers will facilitate a lot of that work in the middle. And I guess I kind of see our role as almost taking off some of the load from business managers, as well as providing a specialist service to manage these projects in between patent and licencing or spinout.
I think it’s probably worth for the audience or anyone else, when we’ve kind of worked with academics and we decided to, make an investment and get that project up and running, it would typically be (an) investment manager from UCL Tech Fund, the business manager from UCL Business and a Project Manager from UCL Business. And it’s probably is.. I think it’s interesting to kind of talk through that sort of team effort that we see on each investment.
Jessica Bolton-Murray 9:36
I guess I see my role as doing most of the day-to-day work in planning and coordinating efforts for getting an agreement in place, making sure everyone knows what their actions are. We’re definitely not the boots on the ground people, doing the work. That’s the PIs usually in the lab and their team.
On that point, for the PI to know, (for) somewhere as big as UCL, for them to even know, in some cases, who to speak to or who’s the right person to get a request form, is trickier. And I think what I’ve seen in the last five years or so, is, (UCL) is a very difficult place to navigate. And the project management team are kind of instrumental in knowing which doors to knock on, who’s actually getting contact with, and I think that has been a really important part of the kind of the support that we’ve had so far.
Yeah, certainly, I think that’s a really good point. And I will have to mention, the UCL has gone through a lot of changes with the way that they provide their services to research projects as well. There’s been a huge change in that system, so it’s something we’ve had to stay up to date with as well. I’m not saying we always know exactly where to go straight away but we’ll certainly find out where.
So, can I ask you what you think the impact of having a project management team, especially for your projects, has been?
Yeah, I think it has been kind of…it’s a fundamental piece of our model. And ultimately, UCL Tech Fund, we work with academics and invest in their technologies and products and companies, at an incredibly early and risky stage. And from that point onwards, there’s a lot of work to be done.
There’s a lot of hurdles to overcome. And it’s never linear. And I think, with the project management support, it not only keeps us kind of on track focused on what we set out to deliver, but it allows us to be kind of reactive, and navigate kind of that the surprises that inevitably comes in our way where we’re working with it, because I said really early, technically high-risk projects. And these are big beasts, multi-year timelines, multiple stakeholders, and complex undertakings.
I think, given that over the last what, since 2016, I think we’ve made nearly 70 investments. That’s a lot of work. And our model has to have this capability to, again, navigate somewhere like UCL that’s really complex, but keep focused on the next milestone. And we are a commercial-driven fund, obviously impact-driven as well, given where we invest at UCL. But we need to be focused on those milestones, get to the next hurdle, and keep doing the projects on track.
You mentioned they made about 70 investments in the life of the Technology Fund. And I have some stats here as well, if it would interest you on our projects so far.
So, we’ve had a hand in progressing about 70 projects at UCL Business, to date. And interestingly, about 86% of those are from the Technology Fund, of which we have a portfolio currently in our team, of about 26 projects.
Out of all of those, are there any projects that kind of sprang to mind for you as a really good example of how project management has assisted in that project, or maybe gone above and beyond in a way.
So obviously, there’s many examples, but I could probably touch on one specific one. Before that my background is in Life Sciences. I work mostly on the therapeutic side of UCL Tech Fund, alongside my colleague Simon Goldman and Lee Brody. I’ve had my hand in a number of different projects from cell therapies, gene therapies, biologics, small molecules, which I think has all had help from the project management team.
And I think probably a good case study to talk through, would be a project which is looking to develop a cell therapy for an ocular disease. This is from the Institute of Ophthalmology. Really exciting, potentially transformative to millions of patients, if not hundreds of millions of patients. Really exciting, great science, but just an incredible number of different stakeholders. This had the scientist’s team, the clinical team, he had a CRO, he had a GMP manufacturing team, as well as us, as an investor. And getting this sort of beast moving forwards and getting the momentum up and running was incredibly hard.
But you could kind of see from UCL Business side, not only the contracting, negotiation for certain licences, but getting the project on the milestones and getting what would have been a 15-person project team functioning coherently, facing in the right direction was tricky. But it’s safe to say so that investment was launched in the depths of lockdown in the summer of 2020. So, lots of hurdles and as I said before, it’s never linear. But we managed to overcome those problems, bring it back on track, and it looks like we’re against steering the project to a point where it could hopefully be tested in human clinical patients in the next couple of years.
You know, that’s interesting, because if you had asked me the same question, that’s probably exactly the project that I would have picked as well. I feel like, that project was maybe about three projects in one, because of the number of supplements, additional supplementary projects, and budgets that were applied.
And it probably shows the flexibility. The partnership between Albion VC and UCLB, and the Tech Fund was devised to be tailored to how you sell conducts research and how UCLB commercialises that research.
And I think that was a case study where there wasn’t a precedent before, and we have to demonstrate how we can navigate the large UCL ecosystem where translational research is done all the time but it’s never kind of clear cut, and it’s never exactly the same. Whether it’s interaction with the Institute of Ophthalmology or Moorfields, or again, outside stakeholders, was kind of instrumental.
We’re setting out to do something which probably hasn’t been done before, with the UCL Tech Fund model. And I feel like, if it wasn’t for the strong relationship, we have with UCL Business, but also the functionalities and the capabilities with the project management team, I don’t think we could have kind of got a big project like that over the line.
I think that’s a great example of why we need this specialist support, where, again, your backgrounds and your experiences are tailored to exactly the sort of areas that we work in. And yeah, I think you initially started working on that project and then, it was your colleague, Simran, who continues to do a great job.
Yes, I’m not afraid of hearing praise for my team at all. Thank you very much.
So we’ve been working together at UCLB and the Tech Fund, I think both of us, for about five and a half years now (and I’m pretty sure we started within about two weeks of each other as well), we’ve certainly seen the Technology Fund and UCL Business project management services grow. How do you think we’ve changed in that time?
Tanel Ozdemir 18:57
I think the whole partnership, and the whole model has evolved since then. And I feel like we both learned an incredible amount on the job. And I guess, from my side, yes, I do get to having come from UCL, when I did my Masters and PhD, I appreciate how big and complex it is; but it’s only when you peek behind the curtain and you step outside the lab and again you try to get something done outside the lab, you realise how difficult it is.
When working with academics on the sort of long timelines, most people used to running grants where they’re giving a two-year grant, they set out to achieve a set of aims, and typically, they change experiments that don’t work or work slightly differently. Whereas I think from our side, our investments are sort of laser-focused again, on key milestones that we think will de-risk the technology investment, and hopefully, unlock further funding or a spin out. And I think from my side, the key learning has been focusing the entire team on those milestones, and not losing sight of kind of where we’re heading. And in some cases, trying to be quite strict at whether we hit those milestones or not.
And given where we work, and early-stage nature, not everything will pan out. And there’s lots of technical risk, as I said, and we need to be prepared to basically draw a line on when we think an investment hasn’t worked, which is obviously quite tough for everyone that’s involved. So, I think we’ve gotten a lot better at enforcing those hurdles, and this is a reason why we kind of tranche our investments.
I think I’ve seen a lot more tranching in the past few years with Tech Fund projects, and a lot more go no-go points as well, as we really kind of drill down into whether we’ve actually getting the results that we want or not, in order to move forward.
Tanel Ozdemir 22:15
We’ve become a lot more professional in terms of the documentation that we have put together, when we share it, and what we expect from those documentations. And I think they’re really, really useful to helping, again, the whole team stick to the work packages (and) the timelines. It’s not meant to be that we create more paperwork, but it’s ultimately a steer for everyone, so that it leads to a better project at the end and a better investment.
That’s really good to know, because we’ve had such a hand in improving these documents, as well, for milestone reporting and project reporting and the kind of information has come in from all the sides and how we can build something like you say, it’s not documents for the sake of documents. And we don’t want it to be too onerous as well on the PIs. But we do need a way of recording things, recording changes, and reporting on the data that we have, in a way that’s accessible as well; and I think we’ve got to a really good point as well, with what we’re doing, where I think it’s quite accessible.
Tanel Ozdemir 24:05
And ultimately, when these projects are successful, it will lead to a spin out or again, they’re licenced to partner with someone. From UCLB’s perspective, they’re used to the due diligence that comes from commercial partners and what they expect. Each of our investments we kind of make it clear that’s what we expect. And again, that should hopefully lead to a higher chance of a successful outcome down the line.
One of the other things you mentioned when we were discussing the changes that we’ve seen over the past few years. You mentioned a laser focus on those milestones as well and really driving towards those.
How would you feel about in the future using a more Agile approach to project planning where you still have your fixed budget as part of the Tech Fund, and you have a scope and an aim, but you’re more building work packages as you go?
Because I feel in the past few years, I’ve seen a lot more projects, not just with go no-go points, but where changes have happened as well, quite potentially last minute (and) utilising contingency funds quite early on for pieces of work. So how would you feel about a more agile process?
I think we naturally got to the point where we have become more agile. And I think from outside, we’re all scientists by background, and we realise that it doesn’t always pan out the way that you expect it to. And it’s not a binary, black, white, yes, no answer.
And I think, yeah, you’re right, we probably naturally got to that point now where we look to understand what the data says or what the results are, and then kind of react. With the academic team, also understanding that we are going to be agile, and we are going to be kind of respond to some things. Otherwise, it just won’t make for a good project.
How would you incorporate that agility?
I think it would probably have to come at an investment committee stage. Because at the moment, a lot of our projects require an almost concrete idea of how much it’s going to cost for each work package, which then has to be undone if you want to make a change.
So, I would say it would probably have to be a consideration that we had quite early, where we say this is how much we think this piece of work is going to cost, but when we actually come to it, we’re allowing more wiggle room for the budget and what we might actually want to achieve within that work package. Which would require, though, a lot more flexibility with the investment committee’s agreement to a project as well. I’m not too sure how that would go down from an investment perspective.
If there is a major deviation, so it’s something fundamentally different than what we initially promised, or what we agreed to do to the investment with the investment committee, that would need prior approval before we kind of change it because then ultimately, the investments change.
But from my side, at least from a project team, I tried to be understanding say, okay, is this a fundamental change? Is this a minor change? Is it still within the spirit of what we set out to do? Is it still going to get that data package or that work package that we wanted to? I tried to apply some discretion, and I think there’s trust between myself and the investment committee for me to make that call. And I think so far, that’s worked quite well. Because otherwise, what happens is that it’s too restrictive.
If you’re going to change the mouse model, and you want to go back to (the) investment committee to get that approval, you might not need to do that, or waste their time or, again, pause the project or pause people’s employment. So I tried to kind of, apply that discretion. But that only comes when you know the technology and the project kind of inside and out, you understand the risks and how much you can change it.
We’re quite pragmatic with how these projects are done. So we do have contingencies which are still kind of under the control of the project management team and the investor. And I think most academics that we work with they appreciate the value of that and that’s already then kind of baked in.
I suspect, if you’ve got the privilege, you can probably incorporate that agility to the design of the experiments. But in some cases, again, the real life gets in the way, and I don’t know your mouse colony might get infected, or there’s a six-month delay in a reagent, because there’s a worldwide COVID pandemic.
The agility thing is a key part, and we can only have that agility with support, like you guys who come in swiftly, adjust and react and help the team to work out what’s the timelines across, the impact of it and what’s going to happen. Swiftly changing the direction of that cruise ship isn’t easy, and that again, is the key part of what you guys help us do.
We both started working nearly five and half years ago, in 2018. Time has flown by and we have evolved not just necessarily in our roles but UCLB, UCL Tech Fund and UCL itself. Where you see, the project management capabilities of UCLB going in the future? I’m sure we are not going to just stop here. There are still lots more work to be done and even UCL has changed so much over the last ten years I’ve been around campus. So, what do you guys have planned for the future?
Well, UCLB is certainly growing and improving. I feel like we are becoming more and more efficient in lots of areas. So, specifically with regards to project management, as I said previously, it’ll be nice to have some diversity of background in the project management team potentially to kind of fit with those other project areas that we’re working towards.
Present company accepted, we don’t just project manage tech fund projects, we also work with other funders as well, such as Wellcome and Innovate UK. We can help academics apply for funding in those other areas and manage those projects as well.
You also work with spinouts that come out from UCLB, right? Again, not UCL Tech Fund ones, but in general.
Yes. If they still have a good link with UCLB in the set up stage. Or perhaps they don’t have a series A yet in order to actually employ someone within the company to manage their project management side, or a COO, for example. We’ll definitely be there to assist with any of their projects relating to UCL.
And that, at the very beginning point where you might have some funding or little funding, that sort of capability is incredibly valuable. Especially if it’s linked to UCLB where they will know inside and out what you need to do, for probably what sounds like a deep-set company or a company that’s using university technology. I think that will be extremely valuable.
Yes, and we have a talented team here, just waiting to help people with all their commercialisation projects at UCL. But it’s really, really exciting times at UCLB at the moment. We’ve grown a lot in the recent years – my team has grown as well. It’s a really an exciting time to be part of UCLB especially with the current successes that we’ve had as well, and I think we are only going to keep moving forward.
Yeah, I think that is just the beginning, I can also see some things coming through in the pipeline and some of the plans and they are really exciting and it’s good for you guys to build on your successes.
OK, so, for any academics looking to access the Tech Fund and have a project working with you, what would you say to them now?
So, I would first of all advise them to check our website and UCLB website. The UCL TF website has some good information on what our remit is and what we are looking to invest in. UCLB’s website is probably a precursor to that; where they set out how they work with academics and UCL Tech Fund is one of those options, which we believe is a good option.
Ultimately, it should probably spark off with a conversation with their Business Manager at UCLB where our colleagues will reach out to us, explain what the academic is trying to do, what the technology is and if it’s in scope. And ultimately, we prefer to just meet academics and hear what great work they are doing. And even if it is not in scope at the moment, we really enjoy those conversations and hearing about their work
And so, (when you do) have a designated project management team working for you here on these projects, when do we get to meet the academics then?
Once we have a few interactions, a few meetings with the team of academics, understand what they do and whether it is in scope or not, we think it is an iterative process. But what we realised the sooner we bring in the project management team, the better.
That gives us a more timing, (more) accurate reflection of the timelines of that investment, what needs to be done, which stakeholders we need to work with from now. They always argue the sooner, the better. Getting the contracts in place, depending on the lag, the timelines, and the process for that.
And that is critical to us, to actually bring this idea or investment to our Investment Committee to get approval; so that is a lot of work we do together with the Business Manager and the Project Manager to get it to that line. That is only beginning. It’s a very long process. This is what you get for trying to solve problems and that., the inclusion of the team is critical before that and as soon as we kick off, it’s again directing and keeping it on track and navigation unexpected problems.
So, think that’s all we have time for today, so thank you so much for joining me, Tanel, and for answering my questions and thank you for listening.
Thank you, Jess. It’s been great.