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UIDP Contracting Forum Speaker Spotlight: Lesley Millar-Nicholson, MIT

Lesley Millar-Nicholson

Lesley Millar-Nicholson has been director of the MIT Technology Licensing Office (TLO) since July 2016, and recently also became director of catalysts in MIT’s newly-formed Office of Strategic Alliances and Technology Transfer (OSATT). At UIDP’s Contracting Forum, she will discuss current approaches to reducing negotiation times, and she will also be featured in a fireside chat about restructuring MIT’s research administration.

UIDP: MIT recently revamped the structure of research administration, and you have taken on the new (additional) role of director of a new cadre of “catalysts” in OSATT. What is the strategic thinking behind the reorganization?

Millar-Nicholson: It starts with the understanding that MIT is extraordinarily ambitious and fruitful in research engagement, to the tune of over $700 million in federal- and corporate-funded research (excluding Lincoln Labs), of which about 20% falls into the non-federally-funded camp. That’s a significant percentage when compared to other universities, which (to my understanding) typically have between 6-10% of research dollars coming from non-federal sources. Another driving force in this effort is the launch of the new Schwarzman College of Computing (the first new MIT college in over 50 years). We’re already seeing increased industry engagement in areas like AI, machine learning, quantum computing, and other areas that cut across multiple schools.

Our research administration infrastructure, like many Universities, was built for federal funding. As non-federal engagement becomes more complex and we see a higher volume, we need to think creatively about how to do it in terms of process and procedure flow.

MIT began to rethink this a few years ago with the aim of having a more faculty-centric process that moves projects at a faster cadence and is more strategic about large-scale research engagements. There remain many doors into MIT, but this model was intended to say, “if industry wants to engage in research or other opportunities with us, then come to this door and a catalyst will connect with you and faculty to understand expectations and work out how we can engage effectively and execute an agreement in a timely fashion.”

UIDP: How will these changes help faculty translate research more effectively at MIT and broaden impact?

Millar-Nicholson: It’s about being here for faculty, departments and deans when they have a strategic engagement initiative, a specific research interest or inquiry. We will talk to faculty about their needs and about the opportunity they are considering, and then ensure that there’s a catalyst to help them start the process, a strategic transactions officer to negotiate the deal and, if necessary, an alliance manager to manage the outcome.

Structurally, it’s a connected system with those three parts; our goals are aligned, we’re all in the same department, so we can work to make sure priorities are appropriately shared and supported across the entire MIT system. The teams report to an associate provost, who can provide insight into MIT-wide priorities as well.

We hope that the restructuring will provide greater clarity on expectations of both parties (MIT and sponsor) and that there will be fewer dropped balls, which we hope will translate into a higher number of successful transactions and positive impact for MIT research. It should also generate higher satisfaction with our industry partners. Ultimately, the goal is to make our faculty feel well supported and to have better relationships with our corporate partners.

UIDP: What are key changes in the contracting landscape that make it critical to keep up with professional development?

Millar-Nicholson: Research and corporate entities are all thinking about new ways to engage. We’re seeing a higher number of multi-party, multi-institution collaborations—with non-profit, quasi-venture capital, foreign entity or government agencies. It follows that there are more and new questions about data and data use, export control, intellectual property terms, contributions of value, elevated risk related to certain foreign countries, all critical issues.

As a community, it behooves us to keep abreast of different engagement models, how others are doing things and how to leverage best practices.

Registration closes January 17! Don’t miss the UIDP Contracting Forum 2020, Jan. 28-29 at SkySong, the Arizona State University Scottsdale Innovation Center.