• Photo: Larry Gilbert (center, with the cap) with members of the Caltech Office of Technology Transfer in 2002
    Photo: Larry Gilbert (center, with the cap) with members of the Caltech Office of Technology Transfer in 2002.
    Credit: EAS Communications Office, Caltech

In Memoriam: Larry Gilbert

Larry Gilbert, the founding father of technology transfer at Caltech, passed away in November 2016 at the age of 84

Larry Gilbert: A Pillar of Tech Transfer at Caltech

In Memoriam: Larry Gilbert, Technology Transfer Pioneer and AUTM Founder

By Ashley J. Stevens, Fred Farina and Robert Perkins

Larry Gilbert, one of the true pioneers of the entire profession of technology transfer and the last surviving founder of AUTM, passed away in November in Florida. He was 84.

Larry received his B.A. from Brandeis University; an M.I.M. degree from the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird); and a J.D. from Suffolk University. He was a patent attorney.

Larry started his technology transfer practice at MIT, where Art Smith, then an EECS Professor and Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, recruited him to join him in one of the very first in-house technology transfer offices.

At a meeting at Case Western Reserve University in 1974 of a small group of people who were active in technology transfer, George Pickar of the University of Miami, suggested forming an association to be a vehicle to bring together individuals and institutions interested in this new field. Nine institutions each contributed $100 (the original suggestion of $200 having been determined to be too rich. True!):

Those frugal founders were:

Lee Starn               Caltech

Larry Gilbert          MIT

Earl Friese             Northwestern

Ralph L. Davis       Purdue University

Mark Owens          University of California

George Pickar       University of Miami

Ray Snyder            University of Missouri

Tom Martin           University of Utah

Marvin Woerpel     Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation


Pickar was the leader of the group, a former law professor who drafted the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. He proposed that the association be called National Association of University Administrators. Larry suggested calling it the Society of University Administrators, or SUPA because he wanted it to be a "Super" organization. In 1989, SUPA changed its name to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). The organization grew and soon had around 250 members. In time that number would grow to more than 3,200 worldwide.

As the end of the 1970's approached, the Carter administration tried to put a halt to the granting of more Institutional Patent Agreements, which had allowed individual universities to retain title to federally funded inventions.

At the time, Purdue had several promising inventions that had been funded by DOE, which had never implemented the IPA process. Because of the significant delays in going through DOE's case by case waiver review process, which frequently took two to three years, during which time the university had to pay the costs of patenting with no assurance of receiving title and no reimbursement if title was refused, Purdue's inventions would probably never be commercialized.

Therefore, Purdue and a small group of other universities, started to demand that institutional ownership of title to patents be a right enshrined in law. They started to assemble a coalition to support this, and Larry was given the task of bringing small business on board. He recruited the support of Small Business Association of New England, who provided several very effective witnesses at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Bayh-Dole.

In 2004, AUTM celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding and was able to assemble six of the seven founders who were still alive to recognize and honor them. Larry was there, wearing his ever present baseball hat and looking considerably less formal than his co-founders. Larry was the final one of the group to pass on.

Around 1976, Larry crossed the Charles River and joined BU's Community Technology Fund. This was a small venture capital fund that had been set up in 1974 by BU's Treasurer, Charles Smith. Larry created BU's first Office of Technology Transfer and operated out of CTF. One of his first actions was to create a Technology Development Fund, a truly pioneering proof-of-concept / prototyping fund that was years ahead of its time.

In 1984, Larry made a $20,000 grant from this fund to a BU professor of chemistry, Richard Clarke, who wanted to use excimer lasers on human tissue. Clarke worked with a BU graduate, David Muller, who had got his Ph.D. on excimer lasers at Cornell and had founded a company called Summit Technology in 1985. They worked with Jeffrey Isner a cardiologist at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, using excimer lasers to perform atherectomies. The three scientists received a patent on this work which was assigned to Summit. Summit later changed its focus to ophthalmology and pioneered LASIK surgery, receiving the first FDA approval for the procedure in 1996. Summit dominated the LASIK market and Alcon bought the company in 2000 for $900 million, BU's greatest entrepreneurial success.

Larry had negotiated an academic "80:20" deal with BU, which allowed him to do private patent work, sometimes helping BU spin-out companies. One he helped was Health Payment Review, a company founded to develop health insurance claims review software for insurance companies. HPR was founded by Richard Egdahl, BU's Vice President for Health Affairs, one of whose many roles at BU was director of the Health Policy Institute. Larry got HPR a key patent that was asserted against GMIS' infringing product ClaimCheck. HPR got a $6 mm verdict. That victory allowed HPR to dominate the field. The company went public in 1995 at a $150 million valuation and was acquired by HBO and Company in December 1997 for $352 million, BU's second greatest entrepreneurial success.

Larry gravitated naturally to the most entrepreneurial faculty members at BU and was relentless in trying to help them achieve their ambitions. Many of his circle were regarded as mavericks by administration, and not all of BU's senior management were enthralled by Larry; however CTF reported directly to President John Silber, himself a maverick, and so enjoyed considerable autonomy.

In the early 1990's, CTF's investment focus started to shift more and more to being a typical, albeit very small, venture capital fund and away from starting and investing in BU spin-outs. The resulting tensions eventually led to Larry leaving BU in late 1994 and moving to the left coast and joining Caltech.

Ashley Stevens joined BU six months later and had the tough job of filling Larry's shoes and earning the trust of the faculty he'd worked closely with. Larry would visit periodically over the next six months to answer questions, always wearing his baseball cap. He seemed to circulate between houses in Massachusetts, Florida and California at this time, but progressively gravitated to the Left Coast, where he embarked on a major new challenge at a time in his life when most people are hanging it up.

As noted, Caltech had been one of the pioneers in tech transfer but its efforts had languished. At the time, patents and licensing at Caltech were handled through the Office of the General Counsel. The need for a dedicated and nuanced approach became apparent to David Goodstein, the Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Emeritus, and Thomas Everhart, president emeritus and professor of electrical engineering and applied physics, emeritus. They recruited Larry to build an office of technology transfer from scratch.

Under Larry, the office became the campus hub for receiving and evaluating invention disclosures, working with the U.S. Patent Office, negotiating licenses with outside companies, and developing commercialization strategies for faculty and students interested in launching start-ups.

"Larry Gilbert came and took the campus by storm with tech transfer," Wolf says. The first thing Larry did was to start meeting with as many professors as possible, one by one. Rather than give presentations, he sat down for informal chats with the faculty members to learn more about what they were doing.

Mory Gharib, the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering and director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories, was among those who sat down with Larry and vividly remembers the gruff but knowledgeable man and his ever-present baseball cap.

"He had a deep understanding of technology. I was amazed when he showed up in my office and started talking about my own research and seemed to know even more than I did," Gharib says.

After months of faculty meetings, Larry launched a tech transfer office based on four core principles, says current director Fred Farina, chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer: create and maintain trusting relationships with faculty and other researchers; utilize a robust patenting strategy; focus on startups; and always understand that tech transfer gives Caltech two bites at the apple—one through equity from successful companies and the other through supporting tomorrow's philanthropic leaders.

By all measures, the effort was a runaway success. Before OTT was formed in 1995, Caltech annually received an average of 36 invention disclosures—informing the Institute of potentially patent-worthy developments—from Caltech scientists and engineers. Last year, that had jumped to 229, with 196 patents issued, nine start-ups launched, and 1,922 total active patents.

"When I came here in 1995, any entrepreneurial activity that was done at all was done out the back door," Larry told a Caltech publication in 2001. With OTT's guidance, Caltech initiated a number of new programs—including the Caltech Innovation Initiative, a fund that helps provide resources to early-stage projects with commercial potential and shepherds new ideas across the "Valley of Death" that separates the lab from the marketplace.

"It's amazing that as a small institute we have such output," Gharib says. "Before Larry, some faculty didn't even know that their ideas could have a use."

Colleagues credit the success of tech transfer at Caltech to Larry's policy of developing and maintaining trusting relationships with faculty-inventors and minimizing bureaucratic hurdles to transferring technologies to the marketplace. To secure the future of OTT itself, Larry made a point of filling his office's staff with scientists and engineers who have a deep technical knowledge who also have an inclination toward business; he also established a line of succession for the smooth transition of leadership in the office.

Three years ago, Caltech's corporate partnerships office was merged into OTT, creating the Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships (OTTCP) and expanding its mission to include management of Caltech's collaborations with established businesses.

Since its founding, the office has helped launch over 240 startups, 25 percent of which have had successful exits (meaning that they were acquired by a larger company or had an IPO), and 40 percent of which remain active, viable companies. Add those to the more than 1,000 technology licenses that have been granted, and the office has helped generate $395 million in gross revenue for Caltech.

In 2015, Larry retired to Florida, but remained in touch with his colleagues in the office that he built from the ground up.

"Larry was a mentor and a friend to many people in OTT, including his successors, Rich Wolf and me," Farina says. "He taught us everything we know about tech transfer."

About the Authors

Fred Farina started his tech transfer career in 2001 at the California Institute of Technology where he has been the Chief Innovation & Corporate Partnerships Officer since 2006. Previously he worked as a research engineer and patent agent.

Robert Perkins is a Content and Media Strategist in the Office of Strategic Communications at the California Institute of Technology.

Ashley Stevens is President of Focus IP Group, an intellectual property consulting company. He was Director of BU's Office of Technology Transfer from 1995 to 2010 and then Special Assistant to the Vice President of Research from 2010 to 2012. He was President of AUTM in 2010-11.