Up Close with SVP of Business Development and Executive Director of Technology Transfer
Heather A. Steinman, Ph.D., M.B.A., joined The Wistar Institute as vice president for business development and executive director of technology transfer in October 2014. Dr. Steinman was hired into a newly created position to forge new strategic partnerships with industry, nonprofit, and local academic institutions and advance Wistar’s growing pipeline of biomedical research discoveries. Dr. Steinman leads and oversees the implementation of Wistar’s intellectual property strategy and all technology commercialization activities. She took a few minutes to discuss her role at Wistar.
When you talk to non-scientists, how do you describe what you do?
I am the facilitator and translator of scientific discoveries into products through our partners, which includes startup companies, entrepreneurs, biotech, biopharma, contract research organizations – anybody who’s working in the life sciences space. Wistar works purely on biomedical research and cancer, infectious disease, and immunology. We look to see how we can move those findings outside of the laboratory into the realm of broader society.
What role does business development play at Wistar?
As the translator, I work with our scientists and our trainees to understand what they’re working on in the lab – the fundamental biology for how a cell works, how cancer starts, how it progresses, how you can detect cancer, every aspect of biomedical research. I try to help make the connection between what they’re doing in the lab and what other companies or other stakeholders in the life sciences arena are working on. I try to find out where there’s synergy and where there’s overlap between what we do on the basic research side and what companies do on the product development side to move something that might take 10, 15, 20 years to turn into a new therapy. It all starts from a Wistar lab, so I have the fun of seeing what people are working on and help break down any communication barriers there might be between an academic scientist and an industry scientist and the whole life sciences chain.
What’s the most important skill you have to be successful at doing that?
I would say customer service, quite honestly. You have to make sure that you have the trust and the relationship with the scientists so you’re not forcing them down a particular path. You provide them with options. If you can share information from patents or the industry for what they’re not used to seeing and help make them a part of the process and let them choose whom they want to work with, then you’re going to increase the odds of being able to actually convert that discovery into something that can be patent-protected, something that can be further advanced and something that has a chance of getting into the clinic. Trust, open-mindedness, and full transparency are the keys to everything.
I need to be a partner as opposed to just being a unilateral decision-maker on what I’m going to do with someone’s discovery. They must be a part of the process. If they’re not, why would they want to stay involved? Why would they want to help the partner? There’s a lot of relationship building and collaboration that goes into all of that. That’s probably the most important.
From the other side of the equation, we need input from industry partners because otherwise we would just be in a vacuum trying to just develop stuff on our own. You need academia and industry working together. With my background in biomedical research, I think my strength is looking at these technologies from a slightly different vantage point than just discovery. Is it actually doable? Is it viable? Can people benefit from it? I ask lots of questions because people with the information may not be thinking about it from a particular perspective.
What do you look for when you’re pursuing a new strategic partnership?
I start with the scientist. Everything begins with what the scientist is working on, what they would like to do, and how far they would like to advance their discovery. There might be instances where people really aren’t interested in making a drug so they’re not going to start a whole new drug discovery program. In that case, I’m going to look for partners that already have similar programs and might be a good fit. Quite honestly, if there’s not a good fit between the scientist and the external party, nothing will come of your relationship.
Since you can’t do science one-sided, there needs to be an exchange and there must be a good relationship between the two. You want to make sure that there’s a good fit between the personalities and an alignment of interests. At Wistar, we do everything that will benefit not only the scientists but help advance the program. It’s customized. We can do that here.
Wistar takes great pride in being nimble. How does your approach to business development reinforce that strength?
Being nimble is an incredible asset that a lot of institutions do not have. Here’s the great advantage: Imagine that in most places they’re evaluating a technology and figuring out how that technology can be advanced to the next stage so it can be then externalized in some way and further developed. You’re normally limited to one particular discovery or project or asset within one investigator’s laboratory, within a department, within a larger organization. At Wistar, at any given moment, I can look across the entire Institute and figure out how we can recombine or combine in new ways, different technologies, different platforms. We can make various combinations to advance our discoveries quicker even further.
We don’t have the political barriers that a lot of organizations do. Everything is focused on collaboration, so all your time is spent on the science and figuring out how that science is going to advance. It is just so awesome to see in real-time how different investigators collaborating together can create new data that’s going to help me figure out where it fits into the broader world.
I think that is really special and people don’t necessarily recognize that all the time because we don’t communicate it, we don’t tell people how we go about doing things. You just see the end products of our licensing partners or startups and then you hope that products will be there 15 to 20 years down the road.
How do you navigate that commitment to collaboration while still protecting the intellectual capital of the scientist and of the organization?
That’s really easy. The collaboration happens on so many different levels. At other places, it’s more competitive and people generally aren’t very good collaborators on the scientific front. Here what’s different. Now you plug in business development – an administrative component collaborating with scientists. Our exchange of information is so critical and the trust that we have is so critical. They need to be able to trust me, so I’m not going to ruin their relationship with an external party by the time we find the perfect partner to work with them. You build a framework that sets a very solid foundation, and you ensure that you’re protecting our IP is one way.
The scientists will always let me know before they share any information because they want to know that they’re doing things correctly, and not disclosing too much. They know the importance of being able to file patents because if we don’t file patents, then we’ll never have an incentive for the partner to continue to work with us or to actually protect and invest in the product development stage. You don’t have to force that interaction; it’s just a natural exchange and collaboration.
Here, because you’re developing the relationship, people are incentivized to actually share, exchange, protect, and make decisions that are in the best interest of the product and ultimately the patients that are going to benefit. If there’s no way of getting that product to market, there’s no point in doing all of that. I really appreciate being personally involved and accountable and helping be that glue.
How did the pandemic change your approach to your role?
It didn’t at all. In fact, I was coming in and working side-by-side with the scientists the entire time. It was fascinating to see how people with such a strong knowledge base could quickly pivot to try to figure out how to apply their science to what was happening. Not from a commercial perspective, but we were in it to try to figure out how to diagnose people that are infected? How do you treat them? How do you prevent them from becoming infected? So, we certainly had a growth in programs that were centered on combating the problem at hand. And those programs are still ongoing because we learn more about long COVID and we’ve benefited from that information to help get that out through tons of publications, lots of patent applications.
When did you know that this was the career path that you wanted to pursue?
I was a graduate student when I started working in the tech transfer office part-time because you couldn’t take jobs elsewhere out of grad school as part of your stipend. All of the instructors who were teaching me how to advance my own biomedical sciences degree were teaching me how to think and set up experiments and design science. At the same exact time, I was showing them how to interpret a patent application, and why intellectual property was important. It’s such a rare opportunity to be in a learning environment, to still be respected, to share what you do and what you don’t know to help them. So, it was when I was in grad school and working in the tech transfer office, that I realized how compelling that whole framework could be.