In both 2005 and 2006 Cornell was in the top 10 universities for most patents received in the given year. As the only Ivy League land grant university, some professors feel that this statistic is indicative of Cornell’s ambition to privatize their intellectual property.
“Now, if you want to do research you need to get funding so capitalizing on intellectual property has become the norm,” said Assistant Prof. Courtney Weber, horticultural science, a researcher in small fruits breeding.
In 2005, Cornell was issued 41 patents, followed by 61 in 2006. Cornell was the only Ivy League ranked in the 2006 list, but in 2005, Columbia and UPenn had more patents.
The comparison between Cornell and other Ivy League schools is not necessarily a correct comparison because of Cornell’s size and scope, but it is still of interest since other Ivies consider themselves research powerhouses as well.
While the 2007 numbers are yet to be released, Cornell’s dominant presence in the research world echoes the goals of a land grant university.
The Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization handles all the filing of patents at Cornell for the researchers. They are responsible for Cornell’s intellectual property.
Alan Paau, the vice provost for Technology Development and Economic Development and CCTEC’s executive director, acknowledged that Cornell’s high volume of patents appears almost business-like, but said Cornell files patents for more important reasons than finances.
“I think it’s a good reflection of how active our researchers are. Most universities are not in the business of filing patents,” Paau said. “It’s a nice indication of how regional the research at Cornell is, but we only file the patent when we think it will help the industry.’”
Robert Buhrman, the senior vice provost of research, remarked on the difference between Cornell and schools with a higher volume of patents such as the University of California system and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I can get a patent if I’m willing to make it narrow enough and get it written, but that doesn’t mean it has value. Simply having a large number of patents is an interesting metric but doesn’t give a lot of info,” he said.
Burhman believes the amount of money earned from licensing the patents is a strong indicator of how much a university is a business as opposed to a school. Such figures are not released.
Since CCTEC is non-profit, Burhman says its main interest is trying to benefit the people who invest in Cornell research.
Weber agrees with Burhman about the main interest of Cornell research, particularly in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but finds filing patents to be a necessity.
“The climate definitely has changed at universities in the last 20 years about how to handle intellectual property. The last generation looked more at their research as work for the public good and the government provided more support for actual research so people felt more comfortable or more obligated to freely release that information just for the broader good of everybody without strings attached,” Weber said.
What differentiates Cornell from a business, according to Weber, is that the University has no sales division. Cornell is not trying to make money off these patents as an actual company would. Additionally, because professors like Weber are public employees, they can feel obligated to tell the “whole story,” a moral obligation companies do not always find necessary.
“In my case and in a lot of professors’ cases, funding is tight. If you aren’t doing research, you aren’t up-to-date. If you aren’t up to date, you cannot provide students with the most recent information,” Weber said. “When we patent something that provides value, we license it and then royalties can come back to the program for further research.”
Weber strongly believes that without these patents, his small fruits breeding department would not exist.
Weber, Paau and Burhman all agree that because of CALS, Cornell lends itself to having more patents.
“Fields where there are more applied applications at Cornell lend themselves to creating patentable products and ideas,” Weber said. “I think that was part of the original foundation of the school — to provide real world answers and solutions to problems people have.”
Additionally, Burhman believes that patenting Cornell’s research is part of its intrinsic responsibility to the state of New York.
“We don’t make that much money off of patents. Because we are a land grant university our focus is not on making money. Our goal is more to help the community. We believe certain technologies are good in trying to create new businesses in the state of New York. A good percentage of the patents at Cornell are directly beneficial to New York residents,” Paau said.