|Last fall, after six years of work between Wentland and the OTC, and the investment in securing and prosecuting a number of patent applications in the U.S. and overseas, Rensselaer announced a license agreement granting Alkermes Inc., a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, rights to the patented and patent pending technologies. Soon after, the Institute began to receive payments for the licensing.
Wentland gains a promising next step for a medical advance he has been chasing for his entire drug discovery career. The license agreement also culminates years of research work by his students and collaborators, with funding by the National Institutes of Health. “I didn’t do it myself,” he says. “With the OTC, it went very smoothly.”
With the establishment of OTC, Rensselaer has staked its claim in the changing landscape of American research universities, where researchers are increasingly encouraged to protect their discoveries and hopefully effectively license them to industry for life-enhancing products. This year, through OTC’s efforts, licensing revenues and patent reimbursements paid to the Institute are expected to exceed $1 million, continuing a steady annual growth rate of 75 percent since 2002 when Rensselaer only generated $62,000.
Discoveries in nanotechnology, electronics, energy, biotechnology, and terahertz are all part of the Institute’s expanding intellectual property portfolio as Rensselaer increases its aggressive research initiative.
The OTC helps the Institute forge relationships with industry and also contributes to the local economy by spinning off new companies generated from the research on campus.
“Rensselaer has an absolutely rich history in both its educational and Incubator programs and now the fruits of its sponsored research are coming to the fore with new patents and technologies that Rensselaer has licensed,” says Ronald Kudla, executive director of the Office of Intellectual Property, Technology Transfer, and New Ventures, which oversees the commercialization office. “We can change the world and this is one of the ways in which Rensselaer does it.”
And yet, Rensselaer is entering a world filled with myriad challenges, one where scholars, government, industry, and the parties that try to bring them together debate how, and how much, campus research should be readied for the marketplace.
While significant royalties go to a relatively small number of institutions, many universities devote time and money negotiating deals for technologies with commercialization challenges. Industry pushes for more intellectual property rights; universities push back, shoring up legal protections. Universities also have to remain on the lookout for business copycats. Meanwhile, some scholars grapple with how prominently the profit motive should figure in higher education.
“Through royalties of the technology that is licensed, universities are really seeing a strong source of funding. But it can be controversial,” says Gina O’Connor, associate professor of management, who visits such questions with her MBA students during a class titled Business Implications of Emerging Technologies. “The role of the university is the well-being of society through education. Many also believe that when discoveries happen in universities they should be brought to everyone. There needs to be a balance and that’s where the tension is.”
Nationwide, commercializing academic research has new momentum. Until the 1980s when the Bayh-Dole Act was passed that allowed universities to manage the intellectual property stemming from federally funded research and to utilize the funds received from that activity to support research and education at the university, the universities rarely sought patent protection, let alone commercialized discoveries for the public’s benefit. In 2005, according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), 190 institutions reported about 4,900 new licenses and options ranging from new blockbusters in technology to small nonprofit educational programs.
The Alkermes contract brings to about 75 the license agreements that the OTC has secured since fiscal year 2002. On average, 15 to 20 licenses are added each year, and 70 to 80 discoveries are made at Rensselaer’s schools and centers. Lining up legal protections hardly guarantees that an inventor’s work hits the market, but doing so at least gives that work commercial exposure.
Last year, through the OTC’s work, funds from licensing Rensselaer’s technology were disbursed to 36 researchers and their departments. By some measures, Rensselaer already performs twice as well as the national university average of one invention disclosure for every $2 million of research conducted. Currently, Rensselaer’s OTC receives approximately one new invention disclosure per $1 million of research funding.