Hopkins commerce chief quits

Sorensen, associate provost, calls her tech transfer job done

October 14, 2006|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

Jill Tarzian Sorensen — A lawyer brought in last year to revamp commercialization efforts at the Johns Hopkins University, where a faculty survey showed the system "broken and scattered," has resigned after 18 months on the job.

Jill Tarzian Sorensen - an intellectual property attorney who once ran technology management at the University of Illinois in Chicago - left her Maryland posts as associate provost and director of the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer office effective Oct. 9.

"She resigned after discussions with us and is going to pursue some other things, perhaps at Hopkins, perhaps outside," Vice Provost for Research Theodore O. Poehler said yesterday.

Wesley D. Blakeslee, the university's associate general counsel, has been appointed acting direc- tor.

Sorensen said she chose to resign because her work at the university was essentially done.

"I was really brought in to be kind of a change agent, to think through strategically what would be a workable direction for the office," she said, adding that she accomplished that and was "now looking for the next [opportunity]."

Sorensen said she's in discussions with others in the university about positions exploring global health, though nothing has yet been settled.

Hopkins has long been criticized by the financial community for taking in more research dollars than most educational institutions, but ranking well below its peers when it comes to licensing its publicly funded discoveries, which is considered vital to state economies, as well as the public good.

The medical research conducted at universities often needs an industrial helping hand to make the shift from laboratory to clinic. A brain cancer treatment sold by Baltimore's former Guilford Pharmaceuticals, for example, has academic roots in Hopkins.

Still, a study released last month by the Milken Institute ranked the school second in research expenditures but 37th in commercialization. Such technology transfer, which involves getting the university's eight schools to transfer their inventions and discoveries to the public through new business ventures, can be foreign to academics who aren't used to the world of business.

In fiscal year 2004, which ran from July to June, the school spent $1.6 billion of mostly federal money on various research and development programs, but it brought in $6.3 million in royalty income from 197 licensing deals, according to the most recent data from the Association of University Technology Managers, or AUTM. Conversely, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spent about $1 billion and earned $25.8 million from 410 deals.

Dr. Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine, referred to a survey last year at a panel discussion that showed faculty relationships with the licensing office were "broken and scattered," according to the Hopkins Biotech Network Journal. The publication concluded that the hiring of Sorensen represented the university's "commitment to remedy the situation."

Sorensen had spent 21 years at the University of Illinois before taking the job in Maryland. During her tenure, she said she put together Hopkins' first written technology transfer business plan, hired new staff, developed a system for assessing technology and coordinated all the schools under one office.

Figures provided by the university show the number of licenses and options executed during fiscal year 2005, most of which Sorensen oversaw, dropped to 94 from 100 a year earlier. The number of new patent applications filed fell to 318 from 402.

Royalty income on all active and pre-existing licenses nearly doubled, however, to $12.4 million. That's an average of about $45,000 per license or option, and up from about $32,000 per deal in fiscal year 2004. But it's off from the U.S. university average that year of about $108,000 per deal, according to AUTM data.

The school's most lucrative deal in the past fiscal year came from California company Allergan Inc., which bought out Hopkins' stake in its top seller: Botox. Last year, the substance earned $831 million for Allergan. Hopkins earned about $3 million - or 0.4 percent - according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sorensen said the amount was appropriate because the school's Botox technology was "incremental." She also cautioned that change takes time, and her role wasn't to increase numbers right away, but for the long term.

"It was about infrastructure build," Sorensen said. The rest is up to her successor.

Blakeslee was unavailable yesterday, but a university news release outlined his qualifications for the job, including: managing new companies and assisting startups, running his own law firm, and working in intellectual property law.

"Right now, we're satisfied having him in place. He's begun to function in that office ... and so far, my observations are positive," Vice Provost Poehler said. "[Sorensen] made a beginning. ... That doesn't mean the job is finished."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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