Students + Campus

UCLA graduate students explore the entrepreneurial side of science

Members of the Technology Fellows Program evaluate invention disclosures and conduct intellectual property and market research

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Christopher Roberts and Kathryn Zavala
John Vande Wege/UCLA

Kathryn Zavala and Christopher Roberts are UCLA Ph.D students who are learning about technology transfer and intellectual property management as part of the Technology Fellows Program.

From the fourth floor lab of UCLA’s Orthopaedic Hospital Research Center in south campus, doctoral student Kathryn Zavala is investigating how vitamin D helps our immune system fight intracellular bacterial infection by studying leprosy.

Like many of her peers pursuing advanced science degrees at UCLA, Zavala is driven to use her know-how and ingenuity to solve vexing problems. After graduation, she could work as a bench scientist or an academic researcher, two common career tracks for new Ph.D.s. However, there’s also a chance that her biggest contributions might be made through science-based entrepreneurship.

Zavala is part of UCLA’s Technology Fellows Program, established by UCLA’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research (OIP-ISR) in 2012. The program, which grew out of a marketing internship program launched by OIP-ISR a decade earlier, provides graduate students in the life and physical sciences with experience and education related to technology transfer.

For 10 hours a week, fellows help OIP-ISR staff assess the commercial potential of technologies developed at UCLA. In this capacity, they evaluate invention disclosures, conduct intellectual property and market research and draft reports to facilitate the marketing of these technologies.

“Not all of us will become principal investigators,” said Zavala, a doctoral student in molecular, cell and developmental biology who joined the Technology Fellowship Program a little more than a year ago and is preparing to graduate in June. “We might decide to pursue careers on the business side of science. Having this work experience exposes us to alternative careers and gives us the opportunity to develop relevant skills that will help us follow those paths.”

Zavala added that the program is equally beneficial to students who aspire to remain in academia, and it enhances UCLA’s ongoing efforts to promote entrepreneurship and innovation. “It’s important for future principal investigators to see how this process works, how a technology makes its way from the lab to the market.”

Christopher Roberts, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, agrees. He has been a program fellow for more than two years and recognizes the professional edge this program offers.

“To stay competitive in today’s environment, engineers really need to understand the entire process of commercialization,” said Roberts, adding that it’s also wonderful for him to be able to see ideas emerging from departments across campus.

“As a graduate student, you have a sense of what you and your coworkers are presenting and putting out there, but when you include all the different professors at UCLA and the variety of fields that we’re making breakthroughs in, the sheer scale is very impressive,” he said. “The amazing ideas that professors and students at UCLA are coming up with each week are really mind-boggling.”

OIP-ISR currently manages close to 3,000 inventions. In the most recent fiscal year, 486 new inventions were disclosed, 121 U.S. patents were issued, 189 new inventions were licensed to companies and 27 startups were formed.

Invention disclosures come from many scientific disciplines, and having interns with expertise in those areas is beneficial when assessing how these technologies can be best used and by whom, said Neil Bajpayee, a technology transfer officer in OIP-ISP who manages the Technology Fellows program.

“Given the diversity of careers now being pursued by research trainees, it is important for an office like ours to conduct outreach and have educational programs,” he said. “And having broad access to interns with varied backgrounds and scientific expertise is a valuable resource for our office.”

Over the past five years, nearly 50 UCLA graduate students have participated in the program, Bajpayee said. Some have gone on to work for startups following graduation, including some of the more than 140 startups that have been launched during the past six years as a result of UCLA research. Others have established careers in patent law, regulatory or medical affairs, management consulting and business development.

A few, like Bajpayee, who interned in OIP-ISR as a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate before graduating from UCLA in 2011, have parlayed their experience in tech transfer into careers within the OIP-ISR office.

“I was fortunate that UCLA had a technology transfer internship and that there was plenty of work to go around,” he said. “I got to see technology after technology, and I gained a wealth of experience in how each one could be protected with intellectual property and potentially commercialized. The experience was formative in my decision to leave the bench, and personally it satisfied my scientific curiosity that initially drew me to research.”

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