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Process of turning ideas into money could use a few tweaks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2010 - In the beginning, there was Gatorade.

Well, maybe not at the very beginning, but the sports energy drink may be the most prominent example of how university research can be turned into a profitable product -- "a blockbuster," in the words of Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

Wrighton chaired a committee of the National Research Council that recommended improvements in how universities can move ideas into the marketplace more efficiently, to help create jobs and contribute to improvements in areas such as health and national security.

"Our overarching incentive is to do the most we can as rapidly we can with new knowledge that comes out of our research," Wrighton said in an interview Monday after the committee's report was released.

"Our researchers need to get their work into the hands of people who can develop and commercialize it, whether it's a mature company like Monsanto or, if it's sufficiently novel, it could spawn a new company."

The committee studied ways in which the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which governs how ideas move from the campus to the corporate world, might be improved. Before it was enacted, government agencies that funded campus research retained ownership of the knowledge and technology involved, and moving such intellectual property into the marketplace was often slow, with little federally funded research actually commercialized.

Over the past 30 years, as control moved from the federal government to the universities, patent and license activity has increased. But the committee wanted to take a look at what changes may be needed to streamline and strengthen the process further.

"We basically said we're better off than we were pre-Bayh-Dole," Wrighton said, "and yet as we think about the system today, there are areas of opportunity for improvement. The legislation really inspired the development of programs at universities that would be of service to the research community that would help get these results into the right hands.

"Universities do not generally engage in the development or commercialization. We do research, and now with 30 years of experience, we are far more heavily involved in applying that knowledge. But in a time like we're in now, when we are looking for innovation and entrepreneurship to contribute to the economic recovery, our report is quite timely."

The report sounds a clear caution that in many ways sounds like the same advice given to gifted teenage athletes who dream of making it big in pro sports, perhaps to the exclusion of working for success in the classroom: The odds are long, so don't count on it.

"Patenting and licensing practices should not be predicated on the goal of raising significant revenue for the institution," the report said.

"The likelihood of success is small, the probability of disappointed expectations high, and the risk of distorting and narrowing dissemination efforts is great."

Wrighton said Washington U. has taken that advice to heart.

"I would not say that our aim with federal investment is to create a financial goal for us," he said, "but rather our responsibility is to move the results of research into the hands of the people who can make use of it as quickly as possible."

So universities have to make sure that visions of profit derived from research designed to discover the next Gatorade don't drive out opportunities to engage in the kind of basic inquiry that may contribute to knowledge in generally but not necesssarily the bottom line.

"One of the issues we have addressed," Wrighton said, "is whether that has distorted the traditional academic mission, and we found no evidence that technology transfer efforts is doing that. We found that people are interested in whether there is a framework where their research can be applied, if it is appropriate to do so.

"People are conscious of the opportunity, but it hasn't had a dampening effect on the free inquiry and research that faculty members think are important. They are not focused on doing research that will have only commercial value."

For work that may have potential to become profitable products, Wrighton said, universities need to take advantage of outside resources to help nurture ideas and move them from the campus to the commercial realm.

"The university is the beginning," he said. "In drug discovery, for example, there is a long way between research and getting to use in humans, and it requires a huge investment.

"We do need fertile territory to transfer the research developments, and I think increasingly, research universities are being called on to make a contribution to the regional economy. We take that responsibility seriously, and it is my fervent hope that research discoveries here will find their way into profitable enterprises."

One area that the committee investigated is whether faculty members need to be able to take advantage of a "free agency" system, where they would be able to either retain ownership of their inventions or have the freedom to bring them to market independently while the universities retain ownership.

The report concludes that while free agency may not be needed, universities should create faster procedures and standardized terms for the licensing of products, particularly to start-up companies where faculty members are involved. It also recommends that universities establish advisory committees to help oversee the transfer technology to the private sector -- an idea that Wrighton said he agrees with, even though Washington U. does not have such a panel now.

He said that the university is talking not only internally but also with others in the St. Louis community to improve the path from the laboratory to the marketplace. Recent developments, such as the announcement last month of the Helix Fund and the Helix Center to foster bioscience research and development -- spearheaded by Wrighton's predecessor at the university, William Danforth -- have moved toward that goal.

"We want to have St. Louis become more of a region of economic growth," Wrighton said. "It's going to depend on doing some of these things better than we have in the past. But a discovery here might not be one that yields a commercial advance here; it may be in another city.

"We try to do what is most rewarding to society, and that may be working with a local company or a new company or a company headquartered in another part of the country. We see opportunities both locally and nationally."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.