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Innovation: A Golden Opportunity?

What does it take to innovate? A brain, a thought, a challenge or all of the above and the liberty to use the resources even if that means sharing your innovation with the institution you are studying in. Professor Vivek Wadhwa reviews some of these ‘constraints’ that are part of the package to innovation.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi

The Supreme Court ruled, Jun. 6, that universities cannot automatically own the rights to the inventions that result from federally financed research.  The next day, a New York Times editorial decried the decision, saying it “romanticizes the role of the solo inventor,” and “fails to acknowledge the Bayh-Dole Act’s importance in fostering collaborative enterprises.” This couldn’t be more wrong. The university commercialization system is broken, and the solution is to empower, not inhibit, the researchers.

The Bayh-Dole Act, enacted in 1980, laid the ground rules for federally funded research, allowing universities to own the resulting intellectual property. Universities established technology transfer offices where they patented and licensed that intellectual property to industry. The number of patents filed and licensing revenue earned became the measure of success for these new offices — offices that were invariably staffed by lawyers and contract negotiators. Their focus was on extracting the maximum value from university inventions rather than ensuring that research breakthroughs were turned into inventions. The Kauffman Foundation, an authority on entrepreneurship and invention, called them “monopoly gatekeepers.” A few universities like Stanford and MIT reap substantial profits from technology licensing, but most don’t cover their costs.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi

If university research was a business, it would be bankrupt.

In 2009, the federal government, industry, and philanthropic organizations invested $53.5 billion in university research. The total licensing revenue of all U.S. universities amounted to $2.3 billion that year, and that number includes the ongoing royalties from technologies licensed over the past decades.

University research is not a business. Its purpose is to expand the knowledge base for humanity, to educate, to inspire, to create research leadership. The real benefit comes from the students these universities educate. Those students go on to start the Intels and Googles of the world. So it is not fair to judge the success of university research by the licensing revenue produced. But, our leaders continue to justify increases in research funding based on that metric. They tout the fact that universities invented some of our greatest technologies—like the Internet, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, and the transistor.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi

The U.S. economy is in shambles and our world leadership is eroding. We need to make the most of everything we have. We’ve invested over a trillion dollars in university research over the decades. Most of this has not been commercialized. The next Internet or semiconductor technology may already have been discovered and left to languish on the shelves of a university research lab. These little-known discoveries are an untapped gold mine of knowledge and a potential catalyst for groundbreaking ideas.

The technology transfer offices are only the beginning. The system also disproportionately rewards academics for publishing papers. Academics strive for tenure, and tenure is earned through published papers—not by creating startups.

When academics make groundbreaking discoveries, it is often difficult for them to acquire funding and test these discoveries in the real world. Most government grants only cover the cost of writing papers—not building prototypes. Without such validation, venture capitalists won’t fund a startup, deeming the discovery a “science project,” and letting it whither on the vine. This chasm between what professors and venture capitalists can and are willing to do, is also known as the “Valley of Death.”

There are times when the technology is so compelling that the researcher is ready to take the risk of starting a venture. But they encounter numerous obstacles, the biggest being the negotiation process between universities and industry. It is not uncommon for these negotiations to drag out for six months to a year as universities commonly demand onerous terms, with up-front payments and royalties. They are fearful that they will license too cheaply the next Gatorade or Google and receive bad press. But it is also difficult for researchers to independently gain the support of the university and connect with entrepreneurs who can teach them the basics of starting a business. Few universities have a sufficiently robust entrepreneurial ecosystem to support this.

One solution advocated by the Kauffman Foundation is to educate university researchers on the basics of entrepreneurship, and turn them into “free agents”—allowing them to own and license their own intellectual property. These researchers know their invention’s potential better than a university bureaucracy ever could. Their goal is to see their technology do good for the world and maximize license revenue. The founders of successful spinoffs like Google usually end up donating more to universities than the schools will every earn from license fees.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi

Bob Litan, the Kauffman Foundation’s vice president of research, fears that universities will merely slip through a loophole in the Supreme Court ruling and go back to business as usual. “It will be unfortunate for the nation and our economy if universities take the knee-jerk reaction of simply rewriting their faculty contracts to avoid a future ‘Roche’ problem,” says Litan, referring to the defendant in the Supreme Court case. “If we are actually going to see the fruits of science and engineering accelerated to market we need porous boundaries between the universities and the marketplace not higher walls separating them.”

I agree with Litan. The High Court’s decision gives us an opportunity to rethink the university research commercialization system. It is time to mine the goldmine of university knowledge and stop holding innovation back.

The above story has been taken from the author’s blog at www.wadhwa.com and was first published in the Washington Post.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Visiting Scholar, School of Information, UC-Berkeley; Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, Duke University; Senior Research Associate, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School; Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University; and faculty member and advisor at Singularity University. Readers can find his research at www.wadhwa.com.


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A Golden Opportunity?

Prof. Vivek Wadhwa reviews some of the ‘constraints’ that are part of the package to innovation. The debate has been on for a while, the U.S. Supreme Court has given its decision, the institutions might feel differently.

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