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Stanford expert on tech transfer tells Google’s story at BU conference

Katharine Ku. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Technology transfer is a numbers game, according to Katharine Ku: investors must sift through countless inventions to find any that pay off big. Ku knows, as she directs Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing, which helped bring to market the Web search technology behind Google.

Ku gave an overview of her institution’s technology commercialization strategy during her keynote address at the third annual Tech Transfer Investing Conference at BU on November 10. The conference brought together venture capitalists, research and development scientists, and tech transfer executives from university and government labs. BU has been a pioneer in technology transfer since 1976, holding equity positions in more than 180 companies through direct investments in venture deals. The process is overseen today by the Office of Technology Development.

Stanford has handled 6,000 inventions in the past 35 years, and just 22 percent of them turned into spin-off companies that made any money for the university. Those spin-offs, said Ku, showed some respectable profits: 53 brought in more than $1 million; 16 made more than $5 million, and 3 made more than $50 million, among them Google, at $336 million.

“If you’re only seeing 5, 10, 15 inventions a year, it’s tough to get a big winner, and you’re just going to have to be really lucky,” Ku said. “This is 6,000 inventions to date, and as you know it’s probably going to take us another 20 years to find another big hit.”