April 25, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 9:57 am

Q&A with James McNamara, UMass Medical School

Photo/Christina H. Davis
James McNamara, Executive Director of the office of Technology Management, UMass Medical School.

James P. McNamara came to the University of Massachusetts Medical School Office of Technology Management in 2005 after a nearly 20-year stint at SRI International, a spin-off of Stanford University. At SRI, he moved from working in the lab to helping commercialize life-saving discoveries. Since joining UMass, the school's tech transfer revenues have increased from $27.7 million annually to more than $38 million for the last fiscal year. Here, he discusses why he left Silicon Valley for Central Massachusetts and trends in the life sciences industry.

>> What drew you away from a name like Stanford to UMass Medical School?

Back then, my impressions of UMass, never having been here, was, "Oh, it's just that medical school they started in the 70s." Once I got here and started seeing what they'd done with the place, I decided it was a good time to move back. I view this as like SRI, which has done great things. This is a younger institution and I think they have enormous potential to do the same kinds of things.

>> Can you give me an example of the types of innovations you are looking to commercialize?

We have a number of things that we're trying to develop. One is a monoclonal antibody for Hepatitis C that is being developed by the Massachusetts Biologics Lab, which is part of the medical school. We're interested in seeing if this antibody would help prevent re-infection of transplanted livers in Hepatitis-C patients. Typically, the transplant patient, because there's residual virus in his body, we'll be re-infected over time even after receiving a new liver.

>> Is UMass still collecting licensing revenue from the work of Craig Mello, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his share in the discovery of the potentially cancer-fighting system known as RNA interference?

We partnered on the original patent application that describes the discovery of RNA interference with the Carnegie Institution. Together, we have 50 or 60 licensing deals. We probably generate a little bit less than $1 million per year.

>> What's the total licensing revenue for the medical school?

Our total for the last fiscal year was around $38 million. Our high watermark was 2009, when we were at $71.5 million. For that year, we're ranked eighth in the country.

>> What impact has the recession had on revenues for this division?

I think quite a bit. The things that are generating royalties — drugs that have reached patent — tend not to be impacted. But our licenses to small and medium-sized companies are down because those companies have really cut back. The deal flow has gone down quite dramatically by 60 or 70 percent. In addition, we're seeing people who have dropped licenses. When times are good, businesses take licenses for what they want. When times are bad, they take out licenses for just what they need.

>> How much do your licensing revenues tie back to federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding?

That's one of the things that's worrying everybody now. Politicians seem serious about getting the federal deficit under control, so it's hard to imagine that the NIH would be unscathed. Our NIH revenues are pretty good for the age and size of our institution. To the extent that that gets cut, that will adversely impact the amount of research that gets done at a place like this. It will affect every institution.

>> Are there particular areas of research that are particularly in demand from the private sector? Or are there areas that are less hot?

We've seen a slowdown in the licensing in the RNAi space. I think it's a technology and a business that's just going to take some time to mature. People are working pretty hard on those things and at some point we'll see some success. I think right now, companies are looking at it and thinking it's a longer-term prospect. I think in general there's an increase in interest in biologics, or treatments that are manufactured within a cell.

Web Only
>> How do you go about reaching out to the businesses that might be interested in licensing the school's technology?

We do a whole bunch of things. We go to conferences, we try to go to the local networking scene, we do the typical things that any office probably does. The staff here has personal contacts. We are also trying to use some of the social media, like Twitter and Facebook. I think it's hard to track whether you get success with those things, but it does give you a presence.

>> How many people are on your team?
We have five licensing officers who are all Ph.D.-level scientists who have made the transition into business development. We also have six support staff that handle things like the financials and accounting.

>> Are you seeing any signs that the decline is abating, or is it lagging the macro-economic trends?
It's lagging a little bit, but I think the worst was the second half of last year. We're starting to get more people interested in certain technologies that we have. I think that's an indication that things are at least slowly turning around.

>> Do you miss being in the lab?
As a business person, as you leave the office at the end of the day, you can ask yourself what you accomplished. The nice thing about being a chemist is that you make stuff. At the end of the day you put in a bottle and say that's what I did today. There's a part of me that will always miss that.

James McNamara on what he likes most about his job:
(Check out more videos at YouTube.com/WBJEditor)


Type your comment here:

Today's Poll
Most Popular on Facebook
Most Popular on Twitter
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media