Q&A with Ashley Thomas, Manager of the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer
Ashley Thomas, alumna of the Sturm College of Law and a previous Fellow with DU’s Office of General Counsel, now serves as manager of the university’s Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer (OIPTT). At the intersection of law and technology commercialization, the office serves a vital role at DU by providing guidance and documentation for research and business happenings conducted by DU students, faculty and staff.
The E@DU team sat down with Thomas to discuss her history in the IP and Tech Transfer space, as well as her vision for the office as a resource for the community.
Q: What resources does the OIPTT currently provide?
A: Presently, for students, the core of it has been writing letters. Students doing entrepreneurial activities need a letter that says to investors, “DU does not own this business.” Investors typically hesitate to deal with universities at all. So, our letters help with that stage in the process. We also have worked to make policies, such as the IP policy, student-friendly and comprehensible. That said, there are sometimes misunderstandings about these policies. So, we are also available to talk through questions students may have. Sometimes there are areas where people feel it is a bit gray, and they would like some advice on how to best interpret their own situation as it relates to the policy. We also allow students to attend most of the seminars and Q&A’s that we put on, and we invite accomplished students interested in gaining real-world IP and commercialization experience to volunteer or apply for internships/work-study with OIPTT.
For students (usually graduate students) working under Principal Investigators (PIs), ownership questions can come up, too. If they have invented something in the lab, does it belong to the university? To the PI? Themselves? What if it was created through coursework as opposed to a lab? We help students work through these kinds of things as well. A lot of our work currently handles these situations among faculty and staff, since there is a lot more ownership on the university’s side. That is why the office exists: to help with these situations.
Q: Could you provide some background on yourself and the OIPTT?
A: I am a DU Law School alumna, and then I worked for an IP firm — so there is your “IP” touch of the OIPTT office. Then, I worked for the general counsel at DU. This is my third pass through the university. Then, I did a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, worked in MAANG research for a while and finally came back here, as manager of the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer.
The OIPTT has been around since 2001. It was reformed completely starting in 2013, and now we are in the third stage of that reformation. It began with rebuilding the office, putting filing systems in place — just starting from scratch, in a way. The second stage was creating new relationships with faculty and staff, as well as rebuilding relationships that might have been dropped during the reformation. At our current stage, we are ramping up what we offer: we are improving internal and external visibility, activities, and support. We want to leverage the resources DU has as an R1 research institution, and bring them to everyone. We are not student-facing, but we are hoping to ramp up activities that involve students.
Q: What motivations brought you to law school initially?
A: I have two answers to that question. One is that I am not the type of law student that joined because I saw the shows and movies and thought, “oh, that’s awesome. I want to be that person.” I never actually watched any of those shows. What happened was, I took the LSAT and thought, “oh, this is so cool. These logic problems are awesome.” I pursued law school based on that. I had a lot of intellectual intrigue around what practicing law might be—which, granted, I found was different from the reality.
The other reason had to do with family. I was young enough that my family’s input still had a lot of sway for me. My family was here, and they did not want me to pursue the other interests I had at the time. For example, I was looking at psychology. My dad said to me: “you don’t want to serve fries the rest of your life, do you?” Between those reasons, I decided to go to DU law school.
Q: What made you decide to work for DU’s OIPTT?
After working in industry, I was considering where to move to next. And through months of conversation with Corrine Lengsfeld, she sold me on coming here. I wanted a place where I could combine my interest in technology with leveraging science for public good. As a scientist, I am sometimes frustrated by the slow pace at which science and research moves… even though it is necessary. Sometimes, you are adding bricks, or even just tiny pieces of grout, to the wall of science. Because of this, that slow pace is often necessary. However, there are times it can be expedited. As an example, we learned this with COVID-19. If you have a crisis and everyone agrees to tackle it all at once, and set aside some other day-to-day concerns, then you can get somewhere meaningful very quickly. So, this was one interest I could bring to the OIPTT.
I had another interest in bringing about consortia guided by academia, rather than being led by industry. Corrine suggested the OIPTT could be a platform for launching into that interest. Shortly after I discussed this position with Corrine, she sent me information on the National Science Foundation and its new directorate, TIP—Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. It is a new office engaged in exactly this kind of thing. I thought, “Okay, good. I’m not the only one that is concerned with this right now. Let’s use science and technology, combine the two, and get them out to the world to make a bigger and better difference for everyone.”
Q: What is in the works at the OIPTT?
A: Moving forward, I am trying to become more engaged in several ways. One is being available when students have questions. We are about to add another part-time person, as well as some interns. We will have more bandwidth to speak with students. I will also be creating videos, FAQs, and other materials to help address questions that come up. If students do not want to reach out to me directly, or we cannot find a time to meet up, there should be content available online over time.
We are also starting to engage with other groups around campus. For instance, I am working with Joshua Ross to find places where the OIPTT and Entrepreneurship@DU’s resources synergize. Additionally, Melissa Akaka and I are exploring ways that OIPTT and the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center (CiBiC) might partner. Moving out to the big picture: there are interesting ways students can get involved. For instance, we want to do an incubator. We could bring in business students, law students, engineering students—anyone who might be able to contribute to growing companies within the incubator. There are all kinds of ways the entrepreneurial community could get involved. In the meantime, we plan to attend more events like the Madden Challenge and to continue developing offerings for the DU innovator community, ranging from creating easily adopted IP and tech transfer templates and guidance, to organizing inventor-oriented colloquia, building bridges between academia and industry, and engaging in other activities that ultimately support research commercialization and technology transfer for public benefit.