US: Decline in commercialising research

Research in American universities resulted in nearly 700 new products coming onto the market in 2006 alone and more than 4,350 between 1998 and 2006. That amounts to 1.32 new products based on academic inventions every single day over those nine years. Recently, however, a decline has occurred in the pace of research commercialisation.

More than 550 new start-up companies were launched in 2006 based on technologies developed in US universities. A report by the Association of University of Technology Managers says this represents 2.2 new companies for every working day of the year.

In 2006, American universities received more than US$45 billion for research and development, managed almost 19,000 new invention disclosures, filed 16,000 US patent applications, saw 3,255 US patents issued, signed 5,000 new licences, and managed 12,672 licences and options that are yielding active income, the AUTM report states.

Although some research commercialisation was happening before 1980, it was the Bayh-Dole Act of December that year that opened the floodgates. The act gave US universities, small businesses and non-profit organisations intellectual property control of their inventions and other intellectual property that resulted from federal government funding.

The universities took advantage of the changes. Since 1980, university technologies have spawned 5,724 new spinouts, more than one company every two days during 9,498 days of innovation.

California, Massachusetts and New York are the states most active in academic patenting, followed by Texas and Florida. Long before the Bayh-Dole Act, California's Silicon Valley and Massachusetts' Boston and Route 128 clusters started flourishing largely thanks to innovative technologies originating at MIT and Stanford University.

Prior to the Bayh-Dole Act, American universities issued fewer than 250 US patents each year. After its implementation, a tremendous increase occurred in technology commercialisation. In the late 1990s, more than 2,000 patents were issued to US universities each year.

The number of patents issued grew from fewer than 2,450 in 1997 to 3,219 in 2001, reports Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, released by the National Science Board. The interest in technology commercialisation is reflected also in the growth in the AUTM's membership which stands at more than 350 universities today or 15 times that in 1980.

Taking university research to market is a double-edged sword because it is not always in the best interests of a university, as Dr David Litster, former dean of research at MIT, pointed out six years ago at a conference at the University of Alberta. The primary goal of a university was the discovery of new knowledge and the education of students, and patents were just a by-product, Litster reminded his audience.

Universities have always been regarded as reliable sources of knowledge dissemination, rather than enterprises earning revenue from licensing technologies. Some academics, such as the famed Cambridge don Godfrey H. Hardy for whom the very thought of applying mathematics was anathema, believe that if universities start making a lot of money by licensing patents, there is a danger they will focus only on research with potential for commercial applications at the expense of fundamental research that may be more challenging but produces no revenue.

Rich Templeton, Chief Executive of Texas Instruments, which supports research at Rice University and Georgia Tech, disagrees. Templeton told Del Jones of USA Today, "I really don't think this is an issue. Universities tend to be pretty independent. Go spend time at a roundtable with researchers and PhD students ... These are pretty independent-minded people. That creativity and independence is strong and healthy."

Professor Henry Etzkowitz, author of a new book on innovation*, told University World News the current transformation, introducing economic and social development as an academic mission, "will transform academia's role in society from a secondary into a primary institution, with the university the keystone of a network of university-industry government interactions to enhance innovation: the triple helix".

When teaching universities started doing research a similar fear was expressed by many, Etzkowitz said. But, as it turned out, research helped improve teaching and the entrepreneurial university has a great future, he said.

Professor Loet Leydesdorff, of the University of Amsterdam and a champion of the Triple Helix model, points out the pace of commercialisation of academic research has started declining in the past few years. The number of patents issued to American universities fell from 3,219 in 2001 to 2,725 in 2005 and university incubators have decreasing links with the research process itself.

One reason for the decline in the pace of commercialisation could be changes in the way universities are evaluated. The emphasis has changed at the global level and this had led to a return to core missions of universities, Leydesdorff told University World News.

More than before, universities are nowadays ranked (by the Times Higher Education and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University among others) in terms of their knowledge output, research papers and citations. Patents and university-industry relations are not part of the ranking system.

Another reason could be the decline in funding for academic research. While federal spending on R&D continues to increase overall, spending on academic R&D, mostly basic research, has been declining for three years in a row. This is the first time this has happened since 1982, reports the Science and Engineering Indicators 2008.

* The Triple Helix - University-Industry-Government Innovation in Action, by Henry Etzkowitz, Routledge, London, UK, 2008