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Lita Nelsen '64, SM '66, SM '79

Technology transfer head brings MIT innovations to the world
February 22, 2011

For 25 years, Lita Nelsen has witnessed the spread of MIT ingenuity from a unique vantage point: the Technology Licensing Office (TLO). The TLO helps MIT researchers protect their innovations and license them to existing companies and startups; Akamai and Momenta Pharmaceuticals are two successful public companies that got their start that way. Nelsen joined the office in 1986 and became director in 1993. During her tenure, it has evolved into one of the most active such offices in the world, ushering thousands of innovations into the marketplace. Annual invention disclosures, which researchers send to the TLO describing promising new inventions, have more than quadrupled, to over 500, and licensing agreements have increased tenfold, to more than 90 annually. On average, 20 new companies are started each year.

Nelsen brings plenty of industry experience to the job: she spent 20 years working on membrane separations, medical devices, and biotechnology at companies including Amicon, Millipore, Arthur D. Little, and Applied Biotechnology. Yet none of those jobs used her skills as fully as the TLO. “Building the Technology Licensing Office has been a phenomenal privilege,” says Nelson, who earned two degrees in chemical engineering at MIT and a second master’s through the Sloan Fellows program.

Considered a leading authority on technology transfer, Nelsen has published about a dozen articles and half a dozen book chapters on the topic. She also lectures worldwide and advises numerous nonprofits on intellectual-property issues. Her cofounding of PraxisUnico, a U.K.-based technology transfer program, earned her a distinction few foreigners receive: Member of the Order of the British Empire.

But Nelsen remains humble about accolades—and about her role as a pioneer. She was one of only 22 women in her graduating class. “I wasn’t sure, at the beginning, if there were even any jobs for women in chemical engineering,” she says.

Though she was the top student in her course, none of the relevant honor societies allowed women, and she faced gender discrimination when job hunting. Elisabeth Drake ‘58, ScD ‘66, helped her navigate the male-dominated professional world, a favor Nelsen repays by mentoring and supporting female MIT students. “It’s been a pleasure to see the growth of women students here,” she says.

Nelsen is especially proud of building a successful career while also raising two children—Katrina Nelsen Saba ‘91 and Dan Nelsen—and staying happily married to Don Nelsen ‘61, SM ‘63, PhD ‘66, a retired electrical engineer who began his career as an assistant and associate professor in Course VI and then worked at Digital, Avid Technology, and Bose. What’s her secret? “You marry the right guy who shares the load,” she says.

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