As stakes

by Kelly Hildebrandt

Most people use retractable seat belts, but many don’t know this life-saving invention — a requirement in cars today — was developed at the University in the ’50s.
But when the retractable seat belt was patented almost half a century ago, the University didn’t enforce the patent. Therefore, the University collected no royalties off the invention.
Today, with less state funds available, these patents are more important and the University is expanding its commercialization program to ensure new technologies reach the community.
The Office of Research and Technology Transfer helps student and faculty inventions get licensed and out into the private sector. The commercialization of technology benefits the University, the inventors and the community. To ensure the program continues to be beneficial, it’s being expanded.
“We felt we were doing a great job but there was a lot more potential,” said Christine Maziar, dean of the Graduate School and vice president of the Office of Research.

Giving it away for free
The financial stakes from University inventions are continually going up, said Tony Strauss, director of the Office of Research and Technology Transfer. To be economically beneficial, patents need to be enforced.
“If the University is committed to technology transfer it will be necessary to protect patents,” Strauss said. “Otherwise their value essentially goes down to zero.”
Chemistry professors Christopher Cramer and Donald Truhlar recently created Amsol Version 6.0, which is a software program that helps predict the outcome process of molecules in solutions.
Version six was patented and licensed fall quarter, but when Cramer and Truhlar developed the first version of Amsol in 1991, they didn’t patent it.
“We gave it away for free,” Cramer said. But years later they decided to license it to create funding for future developments.
The University is ranked between 10th and 15th in commercialization programs at research universities through out the country, Strauss said. The weakest part of the program is the income the program gets through royalties.
“That royalties account can be used to pay student salaries,” Truhlar said of the income the license brings in.
At the University, the income is $5 million a year from licensing income, while comparable institutions make up to $40 million per year, Strauss said.

The cycle of invention
The expansion includes a Web site to inform students about opportunities within private industries. Technology liaisons will also be added to some departments to talk with faculty and students and be more active in finding new technology, Strauss said.
“Every time we’ve increased staff we’ve increased activity on all levels,” Strauss said. “There’s a ceiling but we haven’t found it yet.”
Technology commercialization has a number of functions. It’s intended to create incentive for researchers to find new inventions, which in turn enhances companies within the community, Strauss said.
It’s also an integral part of the University’s land-grant mission, which is to serve the economic vitality of the community, Strauss said.
“Commercialization of University technology is just another piece of how we create a public good,” Maziar said.
Licensing out new technology also has economic benefits because it brings revenue into the University for education and research, Strauss said.
“It’s a feedback loop,” said Cramer. The royalties are put back into the University, which improves the department’s profile and may in turn bring in more federal grant money, he said.
Finally, licensing an invention can be beneficial to graduate students who collaborated with the faculty. The broadest sense of the technology transfer is when a graduate student licenses an invention and later gets a job with the licensing company, Strauss said.

Dollars and cents
Strauss said the universities which make the most off inventions are usually generating money from a “big hit.”
“The hope is that we’ll get a big hit that will generate significantly more income that we have been generating,” Strauss said.
But even with the current income the department is almost entirely self-sufficient, with only about 10 percent of funding coming from the Graduate School.
After all expenses have been extracted from incoming royalties, roughly 33 percent goes to the inventors, 33 percent goes back into the program, 25 percent goes to a University research account and 8 percent goes to the college that developed the product, Strauss said.
The commercialization of technology program has been at the University for years, but with the creation of the Bayh Dehl Act in the ’80s, the program took giant steps forward. The new act made it easier for universities to license inventions by faculty members.