The value of the basic research taking place at the University of Rochester took a giant step forward this year, with companies paying quadruple what they did the previous year for the commercial rights to several discoveries.
Projects in both engineering and biotechnology sparked the interest of companies from around the world. Those companies paid $13.5 million from July 1999 to June 2000 for the rights to selected University projects, compared to $2.9 million for the previous fiscal year. Companies were interested in the gamut of the areas that University researchers explore, from vaccines that protect children to the latest computer technologies used in offices around the world everyday.
In recent years the University has become much more active protecting and licensing its discoveries. In the last decade the number of inventions that faculty members disclosed as possibly noteworthy discoveries tripled from 112 from 1991 to 1995 to 340 from 1996 to 2000. The number of licenses granted to companies doubled from the early 1990s to the late 1990s, and the number of patents issued to University inventors jumped 43 percent during the same period, from 54 to 77. The trend is continuing: Earlier this year, the University was awarded a patent for basic research on a new class of medicines known as cox-2 inhibitors, and promptly sued several pharmaceutical firms alleging patent infringement.
"An active effort to commercialize our technology helps the University in a variety of ways," says Mark Coburn, acting director of the Office of Technology Transfer. "Significant royalty income holds us up as a place where good things are happening. Then people begin to come to us regularly to find out what is happening here, as they hunt for future inventions. An active licensing program really opens up the channels between the University and industry and makes collaborations more likely. It's not just about royalties; this affirms that what we're doing is important stuff.
"In addition, prospective faculty members see this level of activity and know we will protect their rights, so it helps us recruit top researchers."
Among the major technologies developed at the University and currently under license:
The "Blue Noise Mask," a halftoning technology developed by engineers Kevin Parker and Theophano Mitsa. More than a dozen companies have licensed the technology, which is widely used in the graphic arts and printing industry and in hundreds of thousands of printers and fax machines around the world. Last year Hewlett-Packard Co., the world's largest maker of printers for computer use, joined the growing group of licensees. The Blue Noise Mask was invented nearly a decade ago and makes possible the rapid creation of high-quality halftones; at the time of the invention, the Blue Noise Mask derived halftones about 45 times faster than the leading technology.
A vaccine that has virtually wiped out one of the chief causes of childhood bacterial infections, including meningitis. The microbe Haemophilus influenzae b (Hib) used to infect about 20,000 children in the United States alone each year, killing more than 1,000 and leaving thousands of youngsters deaf, blind, paralyzed, or with mental retardation. Since approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990, the number of children infected has been reduced by about 98 percent - only a few hundred children each year get sick from the microbe. The vaccine was first developed by University researchers David Smith, Porter Anderson and Richard Insel, and is now made and sold by Wyeth-Ayerst, a division of American Home Products. In addition, the underlying technology has been used to create several other vaccines, including a newly approved vaccine against the pneumococcus bacterium, the leading cause of ear infections and the remaining cases of meningitis in children.
Technology developed by scientists at the University's Center for Visual Science was licensed by eye-care giant Bausch & Lomb, which is working with University researchers to commercialize the research and offer an unprecedented quality of eyesight. The system developed by vision expert David Williams gives details of dozens of tiny imperfections that exist in a person's eye that were previously undetected; the system is based on the same technology that astronomers use to take the twinkle out of starlight in some of the world's largest telescopes. In research tests the system has dramatically improved the sight even of people who have 20/20 vision. Earlier this year B&L and the University established the Alliance for Vision Excellence, a collaboration dedicated to developing such technology to improve eyesight. Scott MacRae, one of the world's leading cornea specialists and a widely recognized pioneer in refractive surgery, joined the collaboration this summer.
A variety of other projects are also under license, including a vaccine against human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease; a system for monitoring the quality of laser beams; and basic technology that could be useful in developing vaccines to treat cancer more effectively. Income from such licenses is divided up between the inventors and the University, with much of the funding plowed back into research and education.
"We're seeing the positive fruits of taking our intellectual property very seriously," says Kevin Parker, dean of engineering and co-inventor of the Blue Noise Mask.
Earlier this week the Association of University Technology Managers reported that the commercialization of such academic research last year resulted in more than $40 billion in product sales that support more than 270,000 jobs in North America. The commercial activity generated $5 billion in tax revenues in the United States.