University of Rochester

New Degree Program Trains Students to Turn Patents into Products

January 27, 2010

Unique master's degree offered by the University of Rochester entices students to start businesses by capitalizing on neglected technologies developed on campus

Like many top research universities, the University of Rochester files dozens of patents each year, but a large number of them end up sitting in a file somewhere on campus perhaps never to be applied in the real world.

To avoid this, school administrators have created a new graduate program designed to put the college's vast collection of intellectual property to use in medical devices, consumer electronics and a variety of other applications instead of leaving them to collect dust.

The Technical Entrepreneurship and Management (TEAM) program asks students to look through the archives of available patents, find ones that can be turned into profitable technologies, and then develop businesses around them.

Sifting through the University's roughly 400 (391 at the moment) unused patents, picking one, and drawing up an effective business plan around it is a central task for students working toward the Master of Science degree.

This novel approach to teaching innovation by allowing students the chance to use real technologies and perhaps start profitable companies is being put to the test as a pilot program in this school year.

The program is designed for students that have a bachelor's degree in a technical field. Program participants take both graduate level engineering courses from the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as business courses from the Simon Graduate School of Business.

One of the program's founders, Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship Duncan Moore, has started a few companies of his own during his tenure at Rochester using technology that he helped develop.

Moore believes that, although attitudes have begun to change, many academics aren't comfortable in industry, making it difficult for potentially job-creating technologies that are incubated in universities to enter the marketplace.

But local engineers need to learn to start their own companies, especially in Rochester, where traditional, large, high-tech companies are struggling and engineering jobs are leaving the city, according to Moore.

"I believe we have a very strong obligation to encourage engineers to think like businesspeople, both morally and for the health of the University," Moore said.

Aside from creating local jobs and teaching students entrepreneurship, the University has a financial incentive for using some of its dormant patents, according to Jack Fraser, deputy director of the school's Office of Technology Transfer, who is responsible for licensing the University's patents. It costs the University roughly $15,000 in lawyers' fees on average to file a patent, and when the patents sit unused that money is not recouped, Fraser said.

When a technology is licensed, the company that licenses it pays the University for the privilege, usually in the form of royalties. That money is then split between the University and the inventor.

Four students make up the pilot class for the TEAM program, which began this year. The University hopes to expand it to a class of 20 students for the academic year beginning fall 2010.