Empowering Postdocs to Speed Breakthroughs to Market

Every year approximately $700 million is spent at MIT on research, generating 700 invention disclosures but spinning off only 20 or so companies based on research breakthroughs. The Translational Fellows Program (TFP) empowers postdocs to become the campus-wide champions of commercialization by granting them a day a week to focus on commercialization of their research. The goal of the program is to accelerate the transfer of research-derived technologies into marketable products. The postdoc/project “couples” are selected through a competitive process and are provided with one-day-a-week funding to build commercial value of their research breakthrough.

The TFP has developed an integrated year-long program by aligning with the resources available through MIT’s rich entrepreneurial landscape, and is co-managed by the Venture Mentoring Service and the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). The program was founded by RLE director Yoel Fink PhD ’00. As a junior professor, Fink experienced the agony and the ecstasy of innovation firsthand. In 1998, after inventing the “perfect mirror,” he cofounded a surgical device company, OmniGuide, Inc. To date, OmniGuide fibers have been used to treat more than 100,000 patients. But he remembers the decade he spent trying to bring his innovation to market as “going through hell and back.”

The TFP began with five participating postdocs its first year. In its second year, it was sponsored by the MIT Innovation Initiative and opened to additional select departments; 16 fellows were welcomed. For 2015–2016, the TFP was expanded to the rest of campus, and a cohort of 26 joined the program with technologies ranging from needles that can reduce epidural injection complications to a method for reducing the shipping costs of beer.

“This program creates a significant opportunity at the confluence of two unmet needs,” says Fink. “Postdocs go from being job seekers to job generators, and technologies based on MIT-wide breakthroughs make it out of the lab and into the market at an accelerated pace.”

Yoel Fink, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and founder of the Translational Fellows Program