Partnerships between public universities and private companies – called technology transfers – have the potential to solve some of the world's most difficult problems. The idea is to have researchers at universities do their work, and then the institution will help them obtain a patent. At that point, the product can be sold to a private company for distribution. Think of the iconic Gatorade story at the University of Florida.
But according to a special report from the Idaho Statesman, the likelihood of those products getting to market and turning a profit is low.
The article uses Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian's work as an example of how the process can be difficult. Hampikian has created three chemical compounds to treat cancer.
If Boise State chose to pursue a patent for the drugs, and if they were to reach market, Hampikian could split millions in patent licensing agreements with a pharmaceutical company in equal parts with Boise State. Hampikian knows that, like other promising drugs, his compounds face long odds to survive the rigorous testing to come.
“A blockbuster cancer drug would make me a wealthy person,” Hampikian said. “The lottery chance of making money off your invention is so low that we don’t think of it as an income stream. We consider (patenting) as protecting the investments of our university and in our idea.”
After spending thousands on initial filings, Boise State has chosen not to pursue patents on the drugs, though it has filed for patents for two other Hampikian inventions: a miniature pump for use in forensic DNA analysis and a transducer that can generate energy. So Hampikian plans to pay himself to file patents for the cancer drugs, though he will likely need investors to advance them.
Hampikian’s hopes mirror those of researchers at public institutions around the country who want to solve problems, improve society and make money through technology transfer — the licensing of the fruits of laboratory research for commercial use. -- Idaho Statesman
A 1980 law called the Bayh-Dole Act set up this system, which some say has been a success. Besides Boise State, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University (ISU), the Idaho National Laboratory also has a technology transfer office. In 2013, Boise State issued the most licences (22) while ISU didn't issue any.
According to the article, obtaining a license for a product or drug like Hampikian's isn't always a money-making endeavor for a company. License revenue doesn't often cover the cost of the research done at taxpayer expense, which brings into question the return on investment. The legal fees associated with filing patents can also be high; in 2013 the total cost for Idaho public universities was $692,590.
For more on technology transfer, check out the Idaho Statesman print edition Sunday.
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