'Sagamore' who takes a punt on bright ideas

July 21, 2006

There cannot be many university staff who include "Sagamore of the Wabash" on their CVs.

But for Teri Willey, the newly appointed director of Cambridge Enterprise - the university's pivotal technology transfer office - it is one of her proudest achievements.

It is an award given by the governor of Indiana in the US, based on an old American Indian tradition. "The sagamore was a wise man in the tribe to whom the chief turned for advice," Ms Willey said.

"When I was called to an unscheduled meeting in the governor's office and learnt that I was to receive this award, I was completely surprised - and moved."

Wisdom is a quality that Ms Willey will need in abundance when she moves from Chicago to Cambridge this year.

She is currently managing partner in ARCH Development Partners, an early-stage venture capital fund in Chicago. She has a long record of involvement in technology transfer in universities, and will take up her Cambridge post full time in autumn.

She is aware that the success of the university's new policy on intellectual property rights largely depends on her performance. The university gained ownership of IPR (which were formerly owned by academics) last December after a long battle.

As head of Cambridge Enterprise she will oversee the roles previously performed by the Technology Transfer Office, the University Challenge Fund and the Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre.

The enterprise team will be responsible for identifying, protecting and licensing intellectual property as well as supporting those who wish to set up spin-off companies. It will also provide links to industry.

While Cambridge academics eventually voted overwhelmingly to support the new policy, Ms Willey is sensitive to the fact that a vocal minority felt that ownership of IPR should have remained with academics.

On announcing her appointment this year, Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor for research, said: "Ms Willey fully understands the need to collaborate with academics and that academics ultimately have a choice about working with Cambridge Enterprise or not."

Ms Willey is quick to point out that when she first joined the ARCH development corporation - in effect the technology-transfer wing of Chicago University - she modified IPR policy to the benefit of the academics.

"ARCH had a first refusal on inventions disclosed to the university," she said.

"We came to realise that the decision for ARCH to manage a particular technology should be a mutual decision with the faculty inventors.

"It did not make sense to tell the top scientists in the world what they had to do, and the new policy allowed us to say 'no' more graciously in some cases."

Initial concerns that this might decrease the number of inventions disclosed to ARCH were proved wrong - the reverse happened.

Ms Willey began her academic life with a degree in animal science from the University of Idaho in the early 1980s.

"I was licensed to inseminate swine in the states of Idaho and Washington,"

she noted. Possibly another rare achievement among university staff.

What drove her towards the commercialisation of academic work was an interest, or enthusiasm, for a better relationship between research and business.

"I felt strongly that acting at the interface between the not-for profit and for-profit machines, in a way that did not compromise either system, was compelling work," she said.

Her interest, she insists, is not prompted by a desire to make money per se .

"The idea that the public should benefit more from the work of academia resonated with me," she said. "Commercialisation is one way to bring certain academic research results, funded in part out of taxes, to better public use."

Ms Willey became became vice-president of the ARCH development corporation in the late 1990s.

In 2001, she helped set up ARCH Development Partners, a spin-off from the corporation. As managing partner, Ms Willey is responsible for all aspects of fundraising, fund management and investing - with a particular focus on biotechnology and medically based investments.

The fund has been successful, raising more than $30 million (£16.3 million) from institutional investors during a difficult economic period, investing in 15 start-up and early-stage companies.

"That challenge of raising funds for early-stage deals is something I hope to build on here," Ms Willey said.

"While Cambridge attracts more venture capital than other parts of the UK, capital for the earliest deals such as university spin-offs can still be hard to find."

She has already started to consider targets or benchmarks for Cambridge Enterprise. While she is clear that there is no simple financial bottom line for measuring the organisation's success, she nevertheless feels that US programmes can provide helpful comparators.

"One benchmark that is sometimes cited is that annual invention-related revenues should be in the range of 4 to 6 per cent of annual research expenditures," she said, pointing out that Cambridge was operating at less than this.

Over the next few months, her focus will be on moving to Cambridge and settling her teenage daughter into school. In the meantime, she has written the foreword to a new guide from Cambridge Enterprise on how to start a technology company and is flying over frequently to meet people and to network.

"I want to meet people from all areas of the university with as wide a range of views as possible," she said. No doubt a wise move.

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

MY FIRST JOB WAS as a technical writer for a chemical company.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS getting to the real metrics of this work.

WHAT I HATE MOST is intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

IN TEN YEARS I hope to be wiser as a result of this new work, and healthy, active and interesting enough so my children visit me.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE IS probably one of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, particularly when the subject is biotechnology or other areas of science.

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