2011 marked by high numbers of patents, spinoffs and declining revenues at U

The U filed 78 patents last year, the highest in the past five years

Jeff Hargarten

Virtual teeth, nanotechnology and vehicle tracking systems are among the University of Minnesota’s newest patents.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the University filed the highest number of new patents in the past five years and launched the most startup companies in its history.

Patenting an invention is a step toward commercializing it for possible profit. In the past year, the University filed 78 patents, secured 76 new commercialization licenses and spun off nine startup companies, according to data from the Office of the Vice President for Research.

But despite the high numbers, OVPR reported a decline in gross revenue from $83.8 million in fiscal year 2010 to $10.1 million in 2011. The drop is primarily caused by the expiration of patents on the anti-HIV drug Ziagen –– one of the Office for Technology Commercialization’s main revenue sources for the past decade.

The University is looking for ways to increase the amount of marketable technology produced by the school’s researchers.

The University’s OTC requires researchers to report inventions possessing commercial or public value.

The OTC also helps researchers obtain a commercialization license within 30 days, provided their invention is ready to be marketed and does not require a patent. The office recently started a program to help faculty members launch startup companies and avoid conflicts of interest.

 

Medical advancements

Many of the University’s newest patents apply to medical research and treatments.

The school received $305.3 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2011, far more than any other source. The University’s Medical School received $206.7 million in awards, according to OVPR’s data.

David Pui, a mechanical engineering professor, helped launch a startup based on a new method of delivering drugs.

He co-invented ElectroNanospray, which improves drugs’ performance by targeting them at specific tissues like skin or mucous membranes through an electrical field. The technology has applications in dermatology and pain management.

Courtney Aldrich, an associate professor, helped invent a new antibiotic agent to battle the bacteria behind tuberculosis — a disease that kills more than 1 million people per year, according to the World Health Organization.

Dentists also have new tools available from University inventors. New 3-D computer simulations reproduce a patient’s upper and lower teeth, jaws and soft tissues to help dentists monitor changes in anatomy so they can treat and diagnose problems, said Ralph DeLong, a professor and co-inventor of the software.

DeLong and colleague William Douglas designed the program to help dentists monitor oral health. The software compares images of teeth taken over time against health databases to measure the patient’s health against the greater population.

“[It] would function much like
laboratory medicine where blood is drawn, sent to the lab and outcomes are
compared,” DeLong said. “From this information, the doctor makes a diagnosis.”

 

Non-medical patents

New positioning and navigation systems could help manage traffic and track movement within buildings.

An indoor navigation system developed by Stergios Roumeliotis, a computer science associate professor, uses data from sensors within walls and ceilings to generate internal maps of buildings. A handheld device, or one attached to a cane, could detect reflections from interior surfaces and read the sensors to help people navigate.

A vehicle positioning system developed by a team of University professors could read special tags installed in roads to report which lane drivers are in and where they are on highways.

The technology could be used for traffic control and the creation of intelligent highways and vehicles to reduce accidents.