Ellen Purpus, the director of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia‘s technology transfer office, enjoys talking brain candy with scientists, product development with businesspeople and having a front row seat to cutting edge science.
What are you working on?
We have so many projects that are ongoing in various stages of development.
We have three products in the pipeline at the moment. One is a medical device that could be for adults or pediatrics. A couple others are for treating neurodevelopmental diseases.
What are some of your success stories?
Merck’s pediatric vaccine RotaTeq, for the Rotavirus, which causes gastroenteritis in babies and toddlers, was developed here and at the Wistar Institute and has been fairly successful. Vascular Magnetics, a spinout, was developed at CHOP. It secured $7 million in investment for a brand new company. That’s pretty remarkable! Now they’re doing prototyping going towards phase 1 development that’s moving along swimmingly.
How did you come to get into technology transfer?
I tell people I’m a recovering scientist. I got my PhD at Jefferson and was doing my post doc at National Institutes of Health when I realized I didn’t want to be focused on a single molecule for the rest of my life. But I still wanted to stay in science. And just at that time there were a number of seminars talking about alternative careers in science. One was led by the head of technology transfer at the NIH. She was another recovering scientist.
I set up an appointment with her and a few months later was interning at the NIH’s tech transfer office and I have never looked back.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Talking with scientists is like brain candy. I have a front row view of what’s going on with cutting edge science.
What about some of the challenges?
Academics make the discoveries that eventually lead to products. Companies undertake the development that results in creation of products. Although there are nuances that may make it less straightforward, this is generally the case. One of biggest challenges in academic tech transfer is that the technologies coming out of the research lab are at so early a stage of development, that they won’t be ready for commercialization for some time. It can be difficult to find the right partner for further development. Many companies who might be potential licensees prefer that phase 1/2 clinical trial data be available. That is rare in academia.
It’s common for it to take years to find a home for a number of our patent applications. It can be disheartening, but is quite gratifying when the project is launched. One example is the technology that Vascular Magnetics is based upon. The initial discoveries were made several years ago. The investigators kept working and developing the discoveries until they were finally at a stage where business could step in and create a product.
One of my interests going forward centers around helping our investigators better understand what goes into making a product and the culture surrounding that. Conversely, I want to help our commercial colleagues better understand academia and the many, often conflicting interests that make working with us such an adventure.