An introduction to UCLB’s new Associate Director of BioPharm
UCLB has recently introduced two new positions to complement its team structure. Associate Directors have been appointed in the BioPharm and Physical Sciences & Engineering teams. We recently interviewed Associate Director of BioPharm, Dr Mark Fisher, about his new position, the ever-developing field of technology transfer, and the importance of commercialisation in society today.
Mark Fisher joined UCLB in 2019. His Ph.D. at UCL was funded by venture capital and he was at the centre of the first technology transfer spinout company in the university sector. Moving away from research in 2001, he established and managed a business in West London, where his primary focus was looking at commercialising R&D outcomes for the NHS. He subsequently founded a healthcare investment and development business and has been instrumental in establishing multiple healthcare technology businesses across the UK.
Tell us a bit about your background. What experience do you bring to the UCLB BioPharm team?
Before joining UCLB I worked for a medical device manufacturing business, overseeing their technical department and translating ideas and designs into manufacturable processes. It was there that I was first exposed to quality and regulatory staff within healthcare, and ISO standards associated with quality and quality management systems.
My background has allowed me to integrate a level of understanding of the formalities and regulatory processes surrounding healthcare businesses, into the structure of UCLB. Although this is not a formal UCLB function, I believe it is vital for us to be well informed about the requirements here.
Why was the Associate Director role introduced at UCLB?
The role was introduced as a means of further integrating senior management into the day to day activities of UCLB. We needed someone with both expert knowledge of the BioPharm portfolio, and a thorough understanding of UCLB’s strategic operations, to be ‘on the ground’, consolidating the structure of the team and ensuring we were operating as a unit.
What do you intend to bring to this role?
My department is full of incredibly busy and focused people, who thrive most when they are learning from one another. With this in mind I will be looking to restructure certain aspects of our work to ensure that we are always discussing the challenges that we come up against. Mobilising new technology will undoubtedly be our main focus, we need to keep the ‘deal flow going’ after all, but we will be focusing, increasingly, on connecting our experiences, strengthening our competencies, and maximising exposure.
An integrated team will share their experiences with one another and spread their knowledge of technology across the boundaries of individual portfolios. This is what I’m aiming to do in this role.
Why is commercialisation so important for universities?
Universities today are much more rigorous in their approach to business. Commercialisation adds to their wider agenda: it benefits academics. It teaches them new skills and gives them exposure to, dare I say, ‘the real world’, where they are able to witness commercialisation play out, step by step.
It is impossible today to ignore the worldwide benefits of technology transfer. The products that we bring to the market help people – and if they don’t get ‘out there’ – they wont reach those who need them most.
I do think however that tech transfer is not just about patenting and licensing.
‘It’s about realising the value of the opportunities that we have’.
Today, UCLB have a brilliant infrastructure in place that facilitates this process – Apollo and UCLTF, for example, are two funds that are available to academic projects with promising commercial potential.
What has changed about the industry over the years?
‘The game has definitely changed.’
Academic research output used to focus on impact through publications and professional reputation within the academic environment. In fact, impact generated through commercial activity was frowned upon. The notion was that – the function of a university was to teach, to research, and contribute knowledge to the pot.
Increasingly though, the impact of commercialising knowledge, and of generating impact through the national economy, has become as important as generating impact through research papers and academic prowess.
What projects are you working on now? And how do you typically approach a project from a commercialisation perspective?
Often the difficulty with a project is that it’s entirely research driven.
It is important to always ask: can we do things in a more entrepreneurial way?
When I joined UCLB I inherited a complex portfolio of existing spinouts, ideas with some commercial interactions, and wider research programs. I’ve been looking at how we can make certain projects more commercially attractive. For example, I’ve been working on a body of research with an academic, assessing the commercial opportunities in their research portfolio. By bringing a business acumen to bear with the PI, I plan on transforming the work into an attractive proposition by examining the various aspects that may have commercial traction, and making a coherent offering with the research.
Everything within the project is of interest and I want to evaluate the broader ways in which the research team could benefit.
I’m asking questions like: Can we get new money into the lab if we do x? Could commercial contracts start to happen? Could we even bundle it together and spin it out?
I’m ‘hatching’ ideas like that and looking at projects with a fresh set of eyes.
And how do you think the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem at UCL helps with regards to projects? For example, the work of our peers at UCL Innovation & Enterprise and the UCL Translational Research Office (TRO)? How do we all work together to provide a support system for researchers?
We maintain an incredibly productive relationship with our relevant bodies and this is all down to the hard work that we each put in. The challenge now, I think, will be to strive for more inter-communication. For example, there are a number of really outstanding initiatives at UCL that aim at providing support for early career researchers. We are currently looking at how we can construct a coherent pathway for them so that they can present and develop their ideas, and in turn reach a commercial outcome.
I’m collaborating with the TRO and colleagues at Innovation & Enterprise on this. I do think it is important to have a thorough understanding of the function of each of these departments.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your work and of working in the industry in general?
I suppose it is about the impact a technology has. I’ve always thrived off witnessing something at the early stages of its development. I get a real buzz from seeing it early on and consequently seeing it achieved in the future.
Creating impact is vital for me. For example, seeing new healthcare businesses in the UK up and running as a result of our work.
I also hugely enjoy mentoring people, encouraging them to be autonomous, and watching them start to build management teams of their own.
And what advice do you have for future tech transfer professionals? What would you tell someone embarking on a career in the industry?
There is still no formal training for what we do. I would say, above all, it is important to have the right mind-set. For undergrads and Ph.D. students it is vital to be able to demonstrate some commercial acumen through the modules you’ve chosen and show that you’re beginning to understand more about the wider opportunities within healthcare. Success in this field will not just come down to the university or your own enthusiasm. For me, it is not even enough to be well informed about the industry. It is about mind-set and teamwork.
It is rare that one individual is solely responsible for a deal. Our work always comes from a collaborative effort, whether that’s with academics or with colleagues in the office. So ask yourself – where do you think you’d sit within the context of a team?
There are a multitude of interactions that take place within the technology transfer process. It is important that your relationships with your colleagues and key figures in industry are managed well. I suppose my advice would be – be personable, be sharp, be team-oriented, and have a good attitude.