Lita Nelsen is one of the most influential power brokers in the drug industry — and yet there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of her.
That’s because she ran one of the country’s largest and most successful technology transfer offices, an unglamorous yet essential go-between for universities and startups. And any time a venture capitalist, a pharmaceutical company, or a tech titan wanted to cash in on an invention at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, each had to go through her.
Adding to her legacy: Nelsen shattered the glass ceiling for women in tech transfer, and she became a vocal champion for egalitarianism in science.
“Her insights are invaluable,” said Katharine Ku, head of Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing. “Lita has been a beacon for the tech transfer community” — and one that will be sorely missed.
Nelsen retired last week after 30 years at the helm of the Technology Licensing Office at MIT.
Thanks to her efforts, the TLO now handles about 90 licensing deals and launches roughly 25 companies each year, many of which set up shop around Kendall Square, providing Nelsen constant reminders of the weight of her work.
“You walk down the street and you say, ‘Well, I remember when that one was born, and I remember when that one was born,’” Nelsen said last Friday, her last day at MIT before retiring.
Nelsen will now hand over the reins to Lesley Millar-Nicholson, her counterpart at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, closing out her final days at the TLO in a cleaned-out office with just a computer and a plant that was too heavy to move.
Millar-Nicholson praised her predecessor’s balance of expertise and accessibility. “There are some whose approach to [tech transfer] involves them becoming bigger than the profession — a lot of bling not a lot of substance,” Millar-Nicholson wrote in an email. “Lita was never that.”
“Lita has been a beacon for the tech transfer community.”
Katharine Ku, Stanford University
Nelsen’s retirement caps a pioneering career that dovetails with the rise of universities as breeding grounds for entrepreneurialism, seeded by a landmark piece of legislation that transformed American industry.
Before 1980, the patents to any invention stemming from government-funded research were owned solely by the government itself, a system that left potentially promising technology mothballed in federal vaults. After the passage of that year’s Bayh-Dole Act, however, the United States conferred those rights onto the universities and researchers responsible for the actual labor of development, freeing them to do deals as they pleased and spurring an explosion of company creation.
Nelsen arrived at the TLO as that boom was in its infancy, and universities around the country were debating whether, as Nelsen put it, “the grubby fingerprints of the industry would soil the ivory tower of academia.”
But MIT was different. Unlike the schools of the Ivy League, descended from medieval traditions of academia, the comparatively young MIT was founded to bring science to industry, the arts, and agriculture. This, Nelsen said, gave it a head start on the coming boom of entrepreneurialism — and over the ensuing years, Nelsen’s office grew to become the standard-bearer in the emerging field of tech transfer.
Universities around the country sought to emulate what MIT created, and Nelsen, the public face of the TLO, became a mentor to her counterparts around the world.
Nelsen took up tech transfer after a decade in industry, returning back to the university of her student days. Arriving as an undergraduate in 1960 to study chemical engineering, Nelsen found that just 2 percent of the student body was female — and so she and her friends made a song:
Outnumbered one in 50, I think it’s kind of nifty, with 49 fellas and me.
Things have since improved. Roughly one-third of MIT’s undergraduates were female when Nelsen’s daughter enrolled in the 1980s, she said, and that number currently stands at 46 percent.
Now, saying goodbye to MIT, Nelsen still takes joy in the sheer amount of stuff that has come out of her tech transfer office. Medicines, gadgets, software — each a reminder of what kept her coming to work each day.
And on the final one, Nelsen went to a small lunchtime celebration before returning to her office for the last time, with the computer, the plant, and a bouquet of flowers from her staff.