Over the past 50 years, the University has been responsible for some of the most widely used products in health and safety.
Inventions used worldwide, such as the seatbelt, the airplane black box and the pacemaker, had their beginnings at the University.
However, the University does not own the patent rights to many of the products University faculty, alumni and researchers invented, which could cost them in the long run.
James “Crash” Ryan invented the black box – the flight data recorder used in airplanes to determine the cause of crashes – at the University in the 1950s. But the University did not pursue a patent on the invention and now has no rights to royalties.
Bruce Erickson, communications coordinator for the Office of Patents and Technology Marketing, said it
is unclear how much money the University could have made by patenting the black box.
Others, however, said the failure was a serious misstep.
“The dollar amount could be staggering,” said Boeing spokeswoman Mary-Jean Olson, whose company uses black boxes. Boeing installs black boxes in more than 12,000 aircraft worldwide, as Federal Aviation Administration mandates.
The FAA requires airlines to install black boxes in any commercial plane capable of carrying 10 or more passengers, Olson said.
While Erickson said “the University’s intellectual property is meant to be used first and foremost for public good,” University officials said there is also money to be earned from inventions University faculty created.
For example, the University has netted more than $100 million in royalties from Ziagen, a drug that stops HIV from reproducing in white blood cells. University professor Robert Vince discovered a chemical compound used in the drug.
Money made from the inventions of the University and its staff can be reinvested into education and research, said Tony Strauss, assistant vice president for the Office of Patents and Technology Marketing.
His office is in charge of licensing and marketing the University’s intellectual property, Strauss said.
The office has grown from one part-time employee in 1957 to more than 20 full-time employees today.
Strauss said the office grew mostly in response to Congress’ 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which states universities have a right to license technology or research results into a commodity used in the public market.
While the University did seek patents before the Bayh-Dole Act, it did not aggressively license or market its technology until after the legislation passed, Erickson said.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said the importance of an office to patent and market technology is especially clear when the University is in a budget crisis.
Money from University inventions can take the burden off other areas of the budget, which might be stretched, Rotenberg said.
But both Erickson and Rotenberg said the University is not only interested in making a profit.
“We use patents and licensing to make sure the products invented here are used for the right purpose and can be made available for the public good,” Rotenberg said. “It is the University’s responsibility through the Office of Patents and Technology Marketing and the general counsel to protect the interests of the University community.”