Katharine Ku to retire after 27 years leading Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing

Katharine Ku joined the Office of Technology Licensing in 1981 and became its executive director in 1991. After 27 years leading the effort to bring Stanford technologies to the world, she will retire June 1.

Katharine Ku

Katharine Ku, who has led the Office of Technology Licensing for 27 years, is set to retire. (Image courtesy of Katharine Ku)

Katharine Ku has seen a lot in the last four decades. First as a licensing associate and then executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing, she has time and again witnessed Stanford research transform into some of the most important technologies in use today, including DNA cloning, public key encryption and PageRank, the algorithm that drives Google web searches.

Now, after 37 years in the office and 27 as executive director, she has decided to retire.

Ku is an internationally recognized leader in the field of technology transfer, having spearheaded the development and implementation of a set of nine principles for university technology licensing. Since 2007, more than 120 institutions have signed on to the document, “In the Public Interest: Nine Points to Consider in Licensing University Technology.”

At Stanford, she oversaw a dramatic expansion of the office, commonly known as OTL, more than doubling its staff and the income Stanford earns from researchers’ inventions. During her tenure, OTL licensed hundreds of new technologies and brought in $1.8 billion, much of which went back to fund new research. In 2001, the Association of University Technology Managers awarded her the Bayh-Dole Award for her work advancing technology transfer.

A rare leader

Yet Ku will be remembered as much for the philosophy she brought to the work – “It’s not about the money,” but serving Stanford and the public good, she said – and as a leader who inspired colleagues and made them feel like a family. At a recent retirement party, former colleagues traveled from across the country to wish Ku well.

“More than a boss, you are a rare leader – energetic, amazingly even-tempered, sensible and practical, inspiring, creative, kind, persistent and fearless,” said Sally O’Neil, director of the Industrial Contracts Office – a part of OTL that Ku created when she saw a need for a specialized team that no other university had yet created.

“She has an innate optimism and a healthy skepticism, and that has been to the benefit of Stanford,” said Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research. “We are often asked what is in the secret sauce” that makes Stanford inventions so successful, Arvin said. “The true secret ingredient is Kathy.”

Ku plans to stay on through the summer as an advisor to her successor, Karin Immergluck. Immergluck, who is currently the executive director of technology management at the University of California, San Francisco, will start June 1.

“Kathy will be a hard act to follow,” Immergluck said.

Technology licensing was a different world when Ku first came to Stanford in 1979, first as a patent engineer in the Office of Sponsored Research. The Bayh-Dole Act, which gave universities the right to pursue patents on technologies their researchers developed with government money, had just passed, and among its provisions was a requirement that universities report potential inventions.

Stanford, like other institutions that received federal funding, needed someone to scour research papers looking for those inventions, and Ku got the job.

Two years later she joined OTL. Among her first jobs was to collect fees from companies that had licensed DNA cloning technology developed at Stanford in the 1970s. “I had to call 73 companies and tell them they owed us $10,000,” Ku said. “I can cold call anyone now.”

In the early days, Ku said, she and others had to make up much of their process as they went along. “We were just a little office then and we didn’t have a formal process,” Ku said. At the time, there were just five employees, including the office’s first executive director, Niels Reimers.

Ku took over as executive director in 1991 and set to work formalizing Stanford’s licensing process, including clarifying policies on conflicts of interest, equity-based compensation and Stanford’s role in creating startups to further develop researchers’ inventions. For four years in the mid-1990s, she also directed the Office of Sponsored Research, which at the time managed both publicly and privately funded research on campus.

Change and stability

Much has changed since Ku began. The office now employs 48 people, compared with 20 when she started as executive director. The office now brings in between about $50 and $100 million every year, and sometimes more, compared to around $25 million in 1991.

Yet some things have remained unchanged – among them, the desire to make the most difference with an invention, rather than the biggest profits. When DNA cloning was first being licensed, for example, a major pharmaceutical company wanted an exclusive license to the technology. While that might have made the most sense financially, Stanford declined the offer. Today, hundreds of companies use DNA cloning to make drugs including the anemia treatment erythropoietin, human growth hormone, insulin and more.

For her part, Ku said she still enjoys the work – and will likely to continue to consult on technology licensing – in part because of its inherent variety. When she was first at Stanford, every day brought new areas of research she had to understand and digest for non-specialists. Even today, working at the interface of science, technology and law, “there’s always more to learn.”

“I look at my career,” Ku said, “and it’s been really fun.”