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How to Profit From University Commercialization Inefficiency

Apr 3, 2008
If you are looking for a patent on something and the traditional sources have come up empty, you may be overlooking something: the massive amounts of stagnant intellectual property at universities. It turns out that there are thousands, if not millions, of patents just collecting dust in university research labs and libraries. But why is this the case? Why are these patents not being put to better use? The answer lies in the very structure of academia itself.

Anyone familiar with universities and teaching positions knows that the way to get tenure is publish, publish, and publish. This leads to professors and researchers engaging in mass amounts of experiments, papers, dissertations, academic journal submissions, and - yes - patent applications, to prove that they are active and important in their fields. But contrary to popular belief, not all of this activity is worthless. The rush to publish often results in very relevant and valuable patents that, unfortunately, wilt away after the professor or researcher who acquired it achieves tenure. Nothing of substance ever actually comes from the patents.

An article from TechDirt shines a probing light on this tragic predicament by examining a law called Bayh-Dole that encouraged universities to patent their research. Unfortunately, the article continues, the law did not actually lead to more research or help innovations from these patents reach the market!

"...it should come as little surprise to see a new study coming out, suggesting that the infamous Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, that tweaked patent law to push universities to patent their research, did not actually cause greater research in the academic space. This is important, because many patent supporters point to the Bayh-Dole Act as being a key point in increasing the commercialization of research coming out of universities, thanks to the various patents. That now appears to be untrue.

In the blog post linked above that discusses this, Institute for the Future blogger Anthony Townsend notes at the end "To their [Bayh and Dole's] credit, at least they didn't make things worse." Unfortunately, that's not true. They made things a lot worse. As we noted over two years ago, the Bayh-Dole Act has resulted in universities actively stifling research, using the monopoly powers granted to them under patents to prevent important basic research, driving up costs and slowing down innovation. Researchers are now less likely to share information, which has always been an important part in moving important research forward and figuring out how to build on each other's research for practical applications."

The article ends on a rather depressing note, concluding that:

"..despite the common claims by some that Bayh-Dole's tweaks to the patent system helped drive better commercialization of basic research from universities into the market, we now have more evidence that it's done the exact opposite."

So the stagnant patents at America's universities are an established fact. The question now becomes, "How can I get at it?" There are a couple of different ways to do this.

The first is to narrow your search. What kind of patent are you looking for? While it is true that many schools have lots of stagnant patents, they do not have all varieties of them. For example, if you are looking for a software patent, the University of Kansas probably isn't going to turn up many treasures. MIT, Stanford, or Berkley, however, is most likely a gold mine of tech-related patents. Looking for mechanical patents, maybe something pertaining to farm machinery? Suddenly, the University of Kansas is looking like a winner. The key, obviously, is to narrow your search to schools that are most likely to have what you want.

Once you know what school to approach, the question becomes "Who do I talk to there?" This will have to be answered on a case-by-case basis, as each university probably appoints a different person to run their IP affairs. However, your best bet is to ask a research professor or assistant who it would be best to talk to. Ultimately, you want to investigate whether you can buy or license their patents and so you want to talk to a decision maker.

Some schools may have set-in-stone policies for how they handle IP-related matters. They might only be able to sell you patents with permission from the board, or chairman, for example. However, it is worth learning what these policies are and seeing if you can work within them. Chances are, the school would be happy to make a few extra bucks from a piece of paper that was just taking up space in someone's filing cabinet anyway.

Above all, be respectful of any teachers or administrators you come into contact with. There's a very good chance that these people have the final say over the patents you want, and you don't want to jeopardize your chances of getting them.

Other than that, feel free to actively and ambitiously pursue the stagnant IP at universities!
About the Author
Eric Corl is the President of Idea Buyer LLC, a marketplace for new technology and products that gives inventors the opportunity to showcase their intellectual property to consumer product companies, entrepreneurs, retailers, and manufacturers. You can email him at EricCorl@IdeaBuyer.com. You can visit the site by visiting this address; http://www.ideabuyer.com New Technology and Products, Patents for Sale.
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