Tech Transfer Stars highlights those making a difference in the federal tech transfer community. This week's Tech Transfer Star is Brandy Wade, PhD, a Technology Transfer Specialist with the Atlanta VA Medical Center, within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
You were a bench scientist for 13 years. How did you find your way to technology transfer?
I started exploring alternative careers shortly after finishing my PhD because I knew I didn’t want to write grants for the rest of my life. I started attending career symposia to learn about possibilities and I learned about tech transfer there. I applied for Emory University’s tech transfer internship and really enjoyed it. I had always been frustrated by the disconnect between bench work and the tangible outcome that would help people. Technology transfer was a great fit for my skills and my preferred career goals.
How has your background in scientific research helped you as a tech transfer professional?
Inventors can quite literally check my credentials on PubMed, so they know I will understand their research. I have crossed a wide breadth of human diseases and tissue types in my research career. This is really important in the VA, as the majority of our inventions are from the biomedical space. I can connect with inventors and grasp the impact of their invention quickly. This helps me efficiently determine next steps, patent fields, markets and potential licensees.
You were the VA’s first Field Specialist in Tech Transfer. How does that role differ from the VA’s Regional T2 Specialist positions?
The Field Specialists are VA’s eyes and ears on the ground. The VA is huge and very spread out, so Regional T2 Specialists cover huge territories that cover a lot of VAs and universities (4-9 states per region). A Field T2 Specialist (TTS) is embedded in their primary location and focused on a smaller region, so they have more time to engage with inventors and local VA staff. It’s been a crucial role for educating our VA sites about VA’s Tech Transfer Program and improving relationships with our stakeholders across the board.
What does a typical “day at the office” look like for you?
On a typical day I have a meeting with an inventor about a new disclosure or next steps on an active disclosure. Maybe a meeting with the administration of a VA site discussing resources, inventors, etc. I usually have a conversation or two with a direct report (a Field TTS in my region) about training, brainstorming or problems arising at their sites. I might work with our marketing team on a term sheet or a promotional pamphlet. I also help co-run a training program for Field TTS, who are often newer to T2, so everyone is on the same page.
What do you love about your job?
I love how focused we are on getting technologies into the hands of our Veteran customers. We have amazing programs for assisting inventors and pushing technologies further faster: A prototyping program to develop and test prototypes, gap funding (BRAVE [Bringing Research Advancements for Veterans to Everyone] funding) to help push technologies closer to commercial milestones when traditional funding mechanisms aren’t available, and an entrepreneur training program to help inventors navigate creating their own companies. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to be so hands on, to help an inventor through every step from idea to product and see the invention change and grow over time.
The Field Specialist position was created specifically to help untangle a complicated IP situation that resulted in some pretty impressive royalty payments. Tell us a little about that case and how you were able to successfully navigate it.
In 2016 a VA inventor retired from the VA suddenly and submitted a single invention disclosure listing 27 patents he had filed with his own company but hadn’t disclosed to the VA. Initially the VA was embargoed by the Department of Justice from completing review of 12 disclosures. In October 2020, the embargo was lifted, and I began a year long journey of digging into those cases. I got to work reading every publication, grant application, Institutional Review Board submission, Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, patent application and invention disclosure that had the investigator’s name on it. Then I compiled documentation, drafted very detailed invention evaluations (complete with their own citations library) and had dozens of meetings with VA attorneys to craft and issue notices for the remaining 12 disclosures explaining whether the VA would retain rights in the invention and what regulatory criteria supported this decision. I am forever grateful for the assistance of colleagues at TechLink during this process, as I shudder to think how long it would have taken without their help. If I hadn’t been on site as a Field TTS at the time, I would never have had access to key information that was only available in paper format because much of the work predated VA’s electronic record keeping mandates.
What do you wish more people knew about tech transfer at the VA?
I wish more people knew we were here. We have tons of great resources to assist our inventors—gap funding, prototype development, entrepreneur training. I also wish people knew we also work with non-researchers. Most of our inventions do come from the biomedical space, but we serve the entire VA, from researchers to janitors to cemetery caretakers, so we get to go beyond just the biomedical. Some of my most invested inventors come from non-research positions, and it’s honestly a lot of fun to work with such enthusiastic inventors.
Tell us about your involvement with Science for Georgia. How has your work there informed your approach to tech transfer?
I am one of the founders of Science for Georgia, a 501(c)3 organization with a science communication-focused mission. In my tech transfer work, a presentation to research staff is often the first way I connect with an inventor, so it is important to ensure my slides are accessible. I use simple tricks learned from my work with Science for Georgia to make sure my slides are clear to everyone in the audience. For example, there are some popular fonts, colors, and slide techniques that I avoid now as they are difficult for low vision and neurodivergent inventors to read or focus on.
You are known for your ability to translate scientific concepts for non-experts. How important are those types of communication skills in tech transfer?
I always imagine my job as a technology transfer specialist as translation or interpretation. I speak three languages: science, patent, and marketing/business. I translate patent or marketing speak into a language my inventor understands, because most inventors aren’t familiar with patents or the highly technical writing style found in patents. It means I can communicate easily with all the stakeholders in the tech transfer process.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to the tech transfer profession?
This is a job for people who are curious. If you are a lifelong learner but don’t want to be tied to a bench or write grants, this is a great option for you. There are lots of classes available that can help you dip your toe in to see if tech transfer is right for you. But, if you are at a research laboratory or a university, just talk to your technology transfer office folks. If you don’t know who they are, send me an email and I’ll be happy to chat with you.