Finding Job Satisfaction in Technology Transfer

As a business development officer at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver, Canada, Ben Thiede evaluates new technologies and negotiates deals that bring scientific advances to market. He describes his move from graduate studies toward law and into his current position.

What do you do?

It’s a very diverse role; I’m writing and drafting a lot of agreements – like license agreements and supply agreements.  I’m helping the company evaluate the patents we have; I’m evaluating technologies that other companies are bringing to us. I’m always scouring publications; I have Google Alerts set for certain types of technologies. I feel that I am reading more scientific journals than when I was in grad school.

What appealed to you about careers that did not involve lab work?

I wanted a career where you could get paid for your efforts. I was disheartened with science.  I was in a position where you could be chasing so many hypotheses, and you could lose a whole lot of work if they didn’t pan out.

Why did you go to graduate school?

I’m the first scientist in my family. I got interested in stem cells because I was living in Wisconsin, where Jamie Thomson was becoming very well known for being the first to isolate human embryonic stem (hES) cells. I worked in his lab as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; then I worked as a research assistant differentiating hES cells into neurons. I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience. I went to visit the University of Virginia after Madison had had the biggest snowfall in history; it was 75 degrees and sunny, and it had a good neuroscience program.  I wanted to stay with differentiating stem cells and studied a sensory cell in the inner ear.

And you also worked as an intern at the University of Virginia Patent Foundation.

I did it during the day, about 10 to 15 hours on average per week. At night I studied for the patent bar to be a patent agent, which means you can write patents and prosecute them. It’s very helpful knowledge for tech transfer. My PhD advisor was fine with it, as long as I got my research done.

What did you do next?

When I was in tech transfer, my goal was to go to law school; I applied to several law schools and got accepted, even a full ride to one school. But I wasn’t quite certain that I wanted to do law school, and I’d heard that law school was something you needed to be 100% certain about. Then I got a job offer from Texas A&M University. The law school let me defer for a year, and so I went to Texas to be a tech transfer agent.

I came to the realization that the marriage of business, science and law within tech transfer was perfect for me, and I didn’t think that a law degree would add anything to what I wanted to do.

How did you find your current job?

When I was at Texas A&M, my wife and I had thrown around the idea, ‘let’s live internationally.’ Then I came across an opportunity at a company in Canada called STEMCELL Technologies. The job description said how beautiful Vancouver is, how close to the beach and the mountains. I thought ‘this opportunity is kind of like tech transfer, but it’s from the other end.’ And it was in stem cells. I called my wife and said ‘I know you want to live internationally, does Canada count?’

What are your days like?

When I go into work, I have a list of ten things I want to get done and 30 things come up that I wasn’t expecting. I never know who I’m going to interact with. In science I was very independent and relying on my own creativity a lot, and now I feel a greater sense of the whole; I’m part of an organization now.

Any final thoughts?

It would have been hard to break into the field without any experience. I don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t done my internship, and I got my internship by talking to the person who was fitting my suit [and whose son-in-law worked in a patent office]. Sometimes people who do science have a hard time with small talk and learning to communicate their interests, but that’s one of the skills people need to learn.   I’ve had these opportunities because I’ve worked hard to show that I’m worth taking a risk on.


To see more of this interview, click here.

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