Inventions help cash flow for colleges

BOSTON (AP) — North American universities are cashing in on faculty inventions like titanium orthodontic wire and grass that needs less mowing to the tune of more than half a billion dollars a year, according to a new report.
Schools in the United States and Canada made $592 million from royalties and licenses in 1996, said the report being released today by the Association of University Technology Managers.
That figure is up from $495 million the year before and represents a 167 percent increase from five years ago, the study says.
Thanks to products that range from cutting-edge bio-pharmaceuticals to a soap that protects against infection from tick bites, academic institutions have been awarded a record 2,741 licenses to develop products based on their research.
The study cites profitable products such as high-yield hybrid cotton patented by the University of Arizona, orthodontic wire made from titanium invented at the University of Connecticut and grass grown at the University of Nebraska that needs less mowing, watering and fertilizer.
Developing and marketing these products pumped an estimated $25 billion into the American and Canadian economies and supported as many as 212,500 jobs in 1996, the last year figures are available.
The growth comes even as research spending by government and private industry has slowed and colleges and universities are seeking new ways to raise money.
“Look at it as a hard-earned windfall,” said Marvin Guthrie, the association’s president and vice president for patents and licensing at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There is a return all the way down: people hold their jobs, the investors make money, some of the money goes back to the university in the form of royalties and everybody benefits.”
The University of California system alone made $63.2 million from licenses and patents, Stanford University $43.8 million, Columbia University $40.6 million and Harvard University $7.6 million.
Critics worry that closer ties between academia and the private sector may transform universities into industrial laboratories, focused only on potentially moneymaking research. Critics also fear that some schools may soon put pressure on their research faculties to only focus on those areas most likely to turn a profit.
“There’s nothing wrong with capitalizing on the results of research, but we have to be careful that the university doesn’t turn into the development arm (for industry),” said Jules LaPidus, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “These figures are one indication that there’s been movement in that direction.”
University authorities say that license fees and royalties from patents represent a fraction of the $21.4 billion a year in research conducted by the 173 universities and colleges surveyed.