Catalyst Spotlight: Lori Pressman

September 23, 2020

This is part of an occasional series highlighting Catalysts of the Deshpande Center.

Lori Pressman has mentored grant teams as a Catalyst at the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation almost since its founding, starting in 2005. An engineer, inventor, intellectual property strategist, and coach to CEOs, she has guided Deshpande researchers trying to commercialize their technology.

“First, the science,” she said, when asked what keeps her coming back year after year. “Curiosity, problem solving, and collaboration are inherently optimistic. Then, the Deshpande Center directs all that optimism and energy toward solving practical problems and scaling the solutions in partnership with the private sector. Teamwork plus results that make a difference is good news, and a lot of fun.”

Pressman has deep roots at MIT, as an alumna and later as assistant director at the Technology Licensing Office, where over 11 years she negotiated hundreds of license agreements. In between her studies and the TLO, she designed and built semiconductor lasers and detectors for AT&T Bell Labs and Lasertron, an MIT startup. Since 2000, she has been an independent consultant and strategic advisor, also serving as director of a publicly traded investment company, Harris & Harris, and as an advisor to Axsun Technologies, prior to its acquisition by Volcano.

She is a fan of targeted approaches, and often advises “start with the end in mind.” For Deshpande projects, that can mean coaxing prospective customers to explain what exactly they want, so teams can aim their efforts. A related and sometimes overlapping approach is to get an investor to disclose their criteria for investibility.

“You don’t have to be right the first time, you just have to keep at it. Fail early and often. And at the same time, be mindful of the regulatory environment and opportunities generated by recent trends.”

Lori Pressman

Pressman has seen many Deshpande projects, both as their Catalyst and as a member of the Deshpande Grant Review Committee. When asked which project has been most memorable, she mentioned the hydrogel for reducing immune-related adverse events during immunotherapy by Jeremiah Johnson, a professor of chemistry.

“I thought it was a triple-win: science that rises to the level of engineerable, a proprietary position for business traction, and clear potential for significant clinical value in oncology and immunology in particular,” she said. “Alleviation of human suffering was not just a metaphor for this technology. It literally could reduce some of the toxic side effects of current oncology treatments.”

Asked what advice she has for the incoming Fall 2020 Deshpande project teams, she encourages them to draw up trial customer-specific value propositions or product specifications, and iterate from there. “You don’t have to be right the first time, you just have to keep at it,” she said. “Fail early and often. And at the same time, be mindful of the regulatory environment and opportunities generated by recent trends.”

Pressman mentors many health and medical projects at Deshpande, which can be surprising given her degree in physics and the background of her early career. That interest can be traced to when she started seeing engineering approaches being applied to biology. She saw cancer as an area of research that could be more efficient, and noticed fragmentation and lack of coordination in biology research. “It’s an area where a bit of an engineering approach could bear fruit,” she said. “It’s an area where I feel I can make a nudge that matters.”

Pressman is a committed writer whose publications include empirical studies on the outcomes, including jobs and contributions to gross domestic product, of nonprofit technology transfer and intellectual property licensing. When she is not working, writing, or speaking at conferences, she enjoys dancing, swimming, cross-country skiing, photography, and hiking. And, of course, getting her recommended dose of good news by giving her time to the Deshpande Center.

“Thoughtful and sustained collaboration can make a difference,” Pressman said.

— By Shirley Goh, Marketing and Communications Manager
MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation

September 2020