When many think of academia, the first thing that often comes to mind is complicated research papers. But how do scientific discoveries at universities make their way to patents, startups and commercial success? At Cornell, the answer lies at the Center for Technology Licensing.
Patrick Govang, director of innovation partnerships at CTL, discussed its mission in an interview with The Sun.
“As the sole office responsible for protecting and managing Cornell intellectual property, CTL is uniquely positioned to help researchers to make a potential difference in people’s lives,” Govang said.
Besides managing intellectual property for Cornell’s Ithaca campus, CTL also manages intellectual property for Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell Tech, and Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.
Securing commercial development deals for scientific discoveries is one of the main objectives of CTL.
“We hear from so many faculty that what they hope/desire is for their research endeavor to ‘make a difference in people’s lives’ or have a positive ‘societal impact,’” Govang said. He explained that CTL gets involved when commercial development is required to achieve this type of impact.
Govang believes that with research and development being stalled at large corporations, the deployment of university research into the market has become ever more critical for society.
“Since 1980 there has been a documented decline in corporations conducting science-based research. To fill the void, universities, like Cornell, who specialize in basic scientific research have become a resource for innovation,” Govang said.
A major step in the path towards commercial development lies in securing intellectual property.
“For many discoveries to develop into products and services, securing intellectual property rights is critical. As an obvious example, no new drug could make it into people’s medicine cabinets without [intellectual property] protection,” he said.
Govang discussed the different possible commercialization paths of innovations, which largely depend on the readiness of the research to be marketed.
When the idea is in the initial stage and “it is not clear enough to existing companies looking to leverage [the innovations],” startup companies are formed “to further develop the innovation for the market.”
According to Govang, when the idea is more developed or aligned with what the industry is seeking, innovations are typically licensed to those existing companies through licensing agreements entered into by the University on behalf of the researcher.
Data suggests that Cornell is doing well in the commercialization of technological innovation.
“Since 1990, we have helped to found 172 new ventures. Between 2012 to 2017, we have averaged 30 percent new licenses to new annual intellectual property disclosures, higher than the typical rate in the trade,” Govang said.
Hopeful about the future of university-driven innovation, Prof. David Putnam, biomedical engineering, drew attention to MIT and Stanford’s leadership in this area.
“After 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to own intellectual property from government-funded research. There are two universities who invested heavily in 1980s to patent technologies: MIT and Stanford, and everyone else is trying to catch up. Cornell is getting there, it will get there,” he said.
Reliant on the returns from this early investment, MIT and Stanford have been able to patent almost all discoveries.
“They don’t care if it’s marketable or not, they just don’t care. They do that because they have these royalty streams, paying for those patents. Other universities don’t have that, even Harvard doesn’t have that,” said Putnam, who was a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT.
According to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association, MIT had triple the number of granted utility patents as Cornell in 2017. However, in the same year Cornell was granted more utility patents than Princeton, Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago, Dartmouth and Duke.
Putnam points out that there is only “opportunity for growth” because Cornell, despite having fewer resources, “is now very good at patenting new ideas and new technologies.” As a result of this well-managed patent portfolio, “the patents that [CTL] are paying for now will pay dividends for the next 20 years” to be reinvested in innovation.
While patenting is key to fuel the university innovation cycle in the long-term, there are also other shorter-term situations that CTL is involved in.
“Many discoveries even if protected under patent rights by CTL will not be able to be licensed without further ‘de-risking’, and the CTL plays a critical role in this,” Govang said. After a discovery is protected, it is likely that the industry does not trust its market potential at first, so the CTL will find ways to commercially develop that idea by assisting researchers “tap into resources at Cornell and across the country to vet their desires and ideas for potentially starting-up a new venture”, and by helping them “with industry partnerships and collaborations.”
According to Govang, at Cornell, new startups account for approximately 20 percent of all new licensed inventions and 50 percent of exclusive licenses. This implies that licensing to existing companies is the preferred pathway for many researchers.
“Understanding how discoveries transition from the research bench into commercial applications is becoming increasingly important regardless whether the commercialization path is via a startup or directly to an established company,” Govang said.