As the newly appointed senior managing director with the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Cornell University, Dr. Lisa Placanica will lead technology licensing efforts at Weill Cornell Medicine. In her new role, she will focus on developing strategies for expanding the institution’s licensing opportunities—supporting investigators in commercializing their innovations, overseeing management of intellectual property and patents, and offering guidance on the formation of new companies—to ultimately translate discoveries to the healthcare marketplace for the benefit of patients and society.
Dr. Placanica, Ph.D. ’09, joins Weill Cornell Medicine from Mount Sinai Innovation Partners, where she served as managing director of business development and licensing. Prior to that, she was licensing manager in the Office of Technology Development at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she focused on the development and commercialization of cell and gene therapy-related inventions. She is also an alumna of Cornell University and received a doctorate in molecular pharmacology from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
How did you become interested in working in intellectual property and commercial licensing of academic research and scientific discoveries?
I’m a scientist by training. I got my Ph.D. at Weill Cornell Graduate School, and I did my thesis work in a lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. As I was finishing up my Ph.D., I was looking for careers at the intersection of business, science and law. A friend who interned in the CTL office when she was a graduate student at Weill Cornell introduced me to the field, and I thought it was the perfect mix of my areas of interest.
You also received your undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Did your connection as a Double Red play a part in your decision to take this position?
It is a sort of homecoming, to be back in the fold. I had a wonderful experience, both in my undergraduate degree up in Ithaca as a biology major and then in my Ph.D. work down here at Weill Cornell, with amazing scientists and a very collegial working environment.
What does CTL do, and why is it so important to advancing scientific research and clinical care?
Technology transfer offices like CTL act as an interface between academic researchers and the corporate environment, whether it’s startup companies, large pharma companies or biotech companies. The main goal is to ensure that early stage innovations that are developed through rigorous academic research are paired with a commercial entity, which can then develop it into products and services to benefit patients and society.
We’re almost acting as a venture firm, sourcing assets—traditional therapeutics, diagnostic devices, big data analytics, algorithm apps, software—from the institution, making recommendations to invest university resources and time into promising assets, shaping a story around those innovations and then proactively looking for a partner to take that on and ultimately develop a product.
How does an office like CTL best nurture innovation and identify promising technologies?
There’s obviously fantastic research being done at Weill Cornell Medicine. So we want to work with faculty to identify aspects of their research that could be shaped into a product or a service, work with them to develop it and then to forge the partnership with a commercial entity.
We also have to have a finger on the pulse of what industry is looking for: what venture firms are investing in, what pharma is trying to fill their pipeline with. And then we make connections between the two. We have to speak the language between the commercial enterprise and the academic researcher.
What do you look for when you are trying to identify research that is ready to be commercialized?
Overall we’re looking at how the product fits within the commercial marketplace and what problem it solves, not only compared to products that are in the market but also those in the pipeline. The more robust an asset’s data package is that supports a differentiating advantage over what’s in the commercial landscape, the more it is likely the asset will be attractive to a commercial partner.
Weill Cornell Medicine has worked to foster an entrepreneurial environment and encouraged that spirit in its faculty. Why do you think that’s so important to the future of medicine?
Traditionally people think entrepreneurship means starting a company or being a CEO, but in the sector that we work with, it’s actually a broader definition. It’s about looking at research and understanding how it can fit into the commercial marketplace, so it can benefit patients and investigators wanting to partner their innovations along a development trajectory and being flexible on that trajectory. That could be a start-up company or a relationship with an existing entity or an asset accelerator, for example.
I like to take the view that the end goal is getting the product developed and onto the market and successfully into the hands of patients and doctors and everyone who would benefit from it, no matter how it gets there. This to me is entrepreneurship.
How will you strengthen connections with the Office of BioPharma Alliances and Research Collaborations, Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (Tri-I TDI) and Bridge Medicines to facilitate greater engagement between researchers and industry?
CTL, Biopharma Alliances, Tri-I TDI and Bridge Medicines are all very important puzzle pieces of the innovation ecosystem that Weill Cornell is building, and it’s incredible that they all work together seamlessly because every asset has a different path that’s going to be best to maximize it.
That means working together to figure out whether that path is, for example, an early stage research collaboration with Biopharma Alliances, or if it’s an existing asset that’s primed for startup formation or licensing, and then CTL would handle that. Tri-TDI and Bridge Medicines are great engines for when there’s very early-stage research and there’s the need to translate fundamental understanding of target biology into a drug.
Working with the CTL team in Ithaca, how will you grow our national presence as leaders in innovation?
We’ll ensure that corporate enterprises know that Weill Cornell and Cornell Ithaca are open for business, so to speak, and that we’re interested in partnerships. So this involves getting out there at meetings and conferences and building connections, as well as publicizing exciting new relationships that we have or companies that are started or developed out of the enterprise here. All of these efforts can help further our presence on that national playing field.
What can you tell researchers to demystify the patenting and licensing processes for scientific discoveries?
It is a process; I think that’s the key takeaway. It’s a long process and that the investigator’s engagement and proactive participation in that process is critical. I am always looking to form long-term partnerships with investigators around their innovations and devise a strategy to advance it through that very long life cycle of a technology.
I also want investigators to know that there is a different language of intellectual property and business terms, and part of our role is to provide education and guidance on that process.
When should investigators contact CTL, and how can CTL help protect their discoveries and innovate them further?
The earlier the conversations occur the better, because it gives more time for planning and focusing around what might be most protectable. The more familiar we are with the research, the more we can help develop commercial partnerships. I look at every interaction as a source of discussion, so I like to have an open dialogue with investigators.
Every faculty member who has an invention and wants to work with CTL will be assigned a technology licensing officer to work with them on the process, who can be a source of expertise and guidance. There are also educational opportunities like the Office of Biopharma Alliances’ BioVenture eLab program and CTL in Ithaca’s series of informational lectures.
How is the urgency of COVID-19 innovations like testing, treatment and a vaccine, impacting patenting and licensing?
In a 10 month period, the worldwide scientific community already has advanced nine vaccine candidates to phase three clinical trials and 100-plus other vaccine candidates are in various stages of clinical and pre-clinical development, in addition to a pantheon of diagnostic tests that have already been approved for emergency use. While that pace is likely unattainable for other areas of disease, it does speak to areas where efficiencies could be enhanced or where red tape on the development path could be trimmed. We will have to see if it impacts the pace and development in other therapeutic or diagnostic areas.
Ideally COVID-19 will renew interest in investing in infectious disease, including therapeutics and vaccine platforms, which has been very underfunded from a commercial perspective, and I think we’re now seeing that that can be shortsighted.
Do you have any suggestions for researchers for producing innovations that become commercialized?
I think academic researchers should follow wherever the science is taking them, and my goal is to follow right along, and if there seems to be a commercial avenue, help them down that path. I’m hesitant to say “okay, today everyone is interested in this,” because the commercial marketplace does often change its priorities. Ultimately, the science should be the start.