Having a good relationship with the technology transfer office at your university can be key to creating a successful startup. Anne Lane, CEO of University College London’s (UCL’s) commercialization company UCLB, discusses recent successes and shares insights on how to advance new innovations.
Anne Lane began her career as a scientist, completing a PhD at UCL in cardiovascular genetics before working at Harvard Medical School as a postdoc for a few years. After transitioning to the business development side of things for a company called RTP Pharma in Montreal, Canada, she became interested in the commercialization side of research and development.
When a job in technology transfer at UCLB was advertised, she decided to return to UCL and the U.K. and has worked there ever since, taking up the role of CEO in 2019. While working at UCLB, Lane became an expert on helping researchers transition their ideas into successful startups or other commercialization opportunities. The company has an impressive track record helping biotech startups such as Achilles Therapeutics, Autolus Therapeutics and Orchard Therapeutics, among others, to launch and go public.
In an interview, Lane discussed the varied role of technology transfer offices as well as how to recognize good ideas and predict commercialization success and get investments in these difficult “post-COVID-19” times.
What made you decide to move from academic science into business development?
I fell into it if I’m really honest. I did my PhD and postdoc at UCL, and then I did a postdoc at Harvard Medical School. And I was intent on a career in science at that point. Being at places like UCL and then Harvard, I was surrounded by people who were a lot more dedicated than I was. They were brilliant, but that was not me.
My principal investigator at the time was setting up a company of his own. That’s how I first got introduced to commercialization coming out of university research. He went on to set up deCODE genetics. I had to find another job. That’s when I ended up going into business development with a small spinout company in Montreal. They paid for me to do an MBA when I was there. And that’s really how it happened.
I think that I could see my scientific career probably wasn’t going to progress in the pure bench research direction. I went to do business development and really enjoyed it so I carried on.
What attracted you to working for UCLB?
I saw the job advertised in late 1999, when I was still in Montreal. Somebody else pointed it out to me and said: “You went to UCL didn’t you? Look at this.” I thought “that sounds really interesting.” There were eight employees when I started in the company I was working for in Montreal, and we tried to do two IPOs. Talking to bankers and investors, and all that side of things was really interesting and very new for me.
The job at UCL was talking about doing those sorts of things, setting up spinout companies and working with commercial partners. And I wanted to go back to the U.K. That’s what attracted me to it. I think the other thing was the science; it meant I could still be involved with the science without actually having to do it myself. And there are some of the best minds in the world at UCL and to me that made the perfect combination.
How does working in tech technology transfer differ from working as a scientist or as a venture capital (VC) investor?
It’s right in the middle. We’re the transition between basic, very early-stage research and getting it to a point where it’s ready for someone else to invest in it. The thing is, venture capital is not so much “venture” anymore. I think the emphasis is on the “capital.” They are quite risk averse in a lot of ways; they still find university technologies too early stage. I think having the tech transfer teams means that you can develop those technologies to a point where they’re a little bit more investable.
We have to balance the priorities of the university with the priorities of some very commercial partners and trying to get that balance is really quite hard; you’ve got to be very good at diplomacy as well. You’ve also got to know how to manage expectations on both sides.
If you’re an academic, your invention is the best thing ever. But you’re looking at it from a very narrow perspective. We have to try to get across to someone that their idea might not be interesting now, but that they should still come back to us with their next idea because that might be more commercial. It’s really keeping that relationship, maintaining expectations, and then working with them to get the best out of the partnership.
On the other side with VCs, it’s really a constant dialogue of getting the points across about how universities work, how complicated they are and how bureaucratic they are.
What do you do when approached with an idea?
Generally, we don’t question the science because we take the view that if it’s someone at UCL, UCL knows whether the science is good or not. What we will do is look at the basics. Is it a patentable technology, and, if it is, have they disclosed it? Can we still get a patent position and what do they think the commercial potential is? Then we find out from them how they would like to take it forward.
Not all technologies are good for a spin-out company. But if we can set one up, and that motivates the researcher, then we will do that. Often, academics want to carry on with their academic careers and they want to leave it all to us. They want to be involved and what we try and do is outline to them what that means. They’ll probably have to talk to patent attorneys; they might have to talk to investors. We find out from them how interested they are in doing that and then we’ll tailor it around them as to how they want to take it forward.
If we really think a technology would be better in a license, then we will try and persuade them that that makes sense and why.
How do you decide if it’s best for a spin-out company as opposed to a licensed technology?
We look and see if we would be able to get investment. Equally, would our own fund invest? We have access to funds of our own so would we put some money in there maybe to allow proof of concept to get the company going?
Very often, investors will come to us and say we’ve been looking at the work of these scientists and we’d like to invest. With Autolus Therapeutics, for instance, Syncona put £30 million in as the first seed and Series A investment. That’s perfect for us because it’s big money; it’s cell and gene therapy. So, there was no question that that would go into a spin-out.
It really depends on what the technology is as to how we’ll take it forward. Generally speaking, if it’s a biomedical technology or a new therapeutic, we would usually go down the licensing route, because trying to get investment for those sorts of technologies is very difficult. And if it was on the non-biomedical side, it would be a spinout company.
But, because we had investors like Syncona around, that is the exception that proves the rule. All the companies that we’ve set up that are now on the Nasdaq are biomedical or cell and gene therapy companies. I think that just proves that you’ve got to be flexible and adaptable, and not just go down an ”everything therapeutic is a license, and everything in software and computing is going to be a spinout” route, because it doesn’t always work.
How are you funded?
In terms of how we’re set up as a company, we take a tech transfer fee for anything that’s successful, but equally, that means we have to take the risk. We don’t get any success fee unless something actually makes money and we get money back from our IP income. So, for most of the last 10 years, we were loss making because we were investing in companies, we were investing in licenses and patents. If we didn’t get any commercial success, we lost that money.
Now we’re starting to see exits from our companies like the cell and gene therapy companies. That means we’ve got profits that we can retain within the company. UCL decides how much of that money we can keep because we’re a wholly owned subsidiary. But effectively we make that money from IP income and alongside that sits the investment funds and the UCL technology funds.
We’ve just closed the second fund now. The investors in that were the British Business Bank, which became the cornerstone investor, ourselves, and UCL. In the first fund, it was the European Investment Fund, who were the cornerstone investors, but for obvious reasons, we’re not eligible anymore. We’re very grateful that the British Business Bank stepped in and match funded all of the private funding that came in.
You’ve had a lot of successful biotechs coming out of UCLB in recent years, such as Freeline, Orchard, Achilles and Autolus. What would you say is the secret to your success?
I think the fact that UCL is a world leader in cell and gene therapy helps. We couldn’t have had those companies without that skill and expertise within the university. The fact that we’re a wholly owned subsidiary, and we can act quite quickly and more commercially than a tech transfer office where it’s embedded in the university, means we don’t have to go through the bureaucracy.
Universities, especially large ones, have to be bureaucratic. It’s not a criticism. It’s just saying they work differently to the way we can work. They’re not used to working with investors. We try to do those negotiations. We’ve been doing it for a long time. We’ve got that experience. We know how to negotiate those deals. I think having that experience has helped.
UCL lets us act independently. We’ve got a good relationship with the university, but they let us do what we’re good at, and they get on with what they’re good at. I think that makes a big difference, too.
How do you tell staff at UCL what you have to offer?
That’s one of the hardest things that we have to do. The audience is constantly changing at the university. People come, they go away, they come back, they might not be in an area where they think we have any interest in whatsoever.
That’s one of the reasons why I want to broaden our focus so that I can make this interesting to everybody. We constantly have to go out and tell people about what we do internally. And in a way, it’s harder than the external communications. Because academics have got so much on their plates, the last thing they want is me coming along and saying, ”Let me tell you about intellectual property.” They have grants to write and students to supervise.
We try to choose business managers with some sort of technical expertise, so that they can communicate better with the academics. We also give them patches of responsibility at UCL so that they build a relationship with those departments and faculties. I think that also helps. There’s nothing like an academic as your advocate; if you’ve got people talking about you in a positive way, that’s good.
What would you say have been your biggest management lessons while working at UCLB?
I think one of the big things is influencing up as well as down. Sometimes it’s easy to think I’ve just got to deal with all the people that I’m in charge of, whereas actually you need to make sure that all the people in charge of you like what you’re doing. I think there’s a lot of influencing in both directions.
It can be really hard. You have to adapt your leadership style to the people you’re working with to get the best from them because they’re all individuals. They wouldn’t carry on working here if they didn’t want to work with you and for you. You have to trust people as well. Trust that they know what they’re doing because you can’t do the job all on your own: you are a team.
There’s a lot of talk about needing more women in biotech and pharma, particularly at senior levels. Do you think things need to improve?
I think they definitely need to improve. Also, if you don’t have people from very diverse backgrounds, whether it’s ethnicity, sexuality, whatever it might be, you’re missing a trick, because you’re missing a great talent pool.
Just looking at women, women are 50% of the population — you’re losing 50% of your talent if you don’t promote women. Women usually end up with caring roles, whether it’s having children, or looking after aging relatives, there’s usually some caring role that you will do and it usually falls to women to do that. Even if you don’t have children, people think you might and so I think there’s an unconscious bias there.
There’s a lot more that can be done. The figures just don’t stack up. It makes no sense economically to train women at the undergraduate level and then to miss out on them at the professorial level. What’s the point?
We’re doing a survey at the moment to find out how many women CEOs we get, both inventors and women entrepreneurs at UCL. I think if you’re in front of a whole load of male investors, even unconsciously, they’re probably more likely to invest in someone like them. I think that’s a lot of the problem. And it’s starting to change, but very slowly.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs trying to commercialize and get investment right now?
If they’re coming out of a university, then I would say, go and find out where your tech transfer office is and go and talk to them. Be flexible. Listen to what they’ve got to say, but talk to other people too. Talk to friends who might have done the same sort of thing.
If you’ve got friendly investors, use your own network, because you’ve usually got a pretty good one, it’s probably better than you think it is. Just bear in mind that you’ve undoubtedly got a lot more things to give in a startup environment than you might think.
I think having to work on grant funding means that when it comes to the burn rate in the commercial world, you’re probably much better at controlling that than a lot of CEOs can. You have to do that in a lab, you’ve got a finite amount of money, and you’ve got to get certain things done with that money. And if you don’t, the money runs out. It’s the same in the commercial world, but people tend to spend more. Don’t underestimate yourself and go and talk to the tech transfer office.