University Technology-Transfer Revenue Surges to All-Time High

March 07, 2002

Companies around the world paid more than 10 times more for the commercial rights to University research last year than they did just two years before, and that achievement has already been surpassed this year, only eight months into fiscal year 2002.

More than $40 million in revenue has come into the University since July 2001 as businesses gain interest in the engineering and biotechnology efforts of local scientists. Last year, technology transfer revenue topped $29 million, more than double the $13 million of 2000 and nearly 10 times the $3 million of 1999. The most lucrative patents include a childhood vaccine and computer technology used in offices around the world everyday, though patents for everything from genetics to photography contributed to the skyrocketing return on research.

"I think people might not realize that the University has been active in promoting technology transfer for the last decade," says Mark Coburn, director of technology transfer. "It's the only way we would have this level of revenue because the time from new idea to finished product can be five to 10 years or more. Once a university has achieved this level of revenue, companies and venture capitalists begin to recognize that the University is 'licensing- and start-up-company friendly.' It creates an exciting, sustainable process of technology transfer and helps to foster and attract resources to cultivate more innovative research."

Patents are an essential starting point for a license agreement between the University and a corporation. For instance, a single patent launched what has become a broad relationship between the University and Bausch & Lomb.

"My adaptive optics patent not only resulted in a product, it has generated a steady stream of research contracts that has expanded my basic science research program into improvements in eye care," explains David Williams, professor of brain and cognitive sciences. "It has been very satisfying for me to have helped translate basic science results into measurable improvements in people's vision. The relationship has grown into the Alliance for Vision Excellence, which allowed the hiring of a refractive surgeon and brings together a number of researchers in the University and Bausch & Lomb."

Benjamin Miller, assistant professor of chemistry, is in the process of patenting a method of detecting bacteria in a bandage, so that people at home could tell immediately if their wound was infected.

"Going through the patent process has been tremendously helpful to my group," says Miller. "The primary benefit has been with respect to getting taken seriously by industry, which is a source of research funding that has become extremely important in today's intensely competitive environment."

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. In 2000, 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 that same year.

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Christopher DiFrancesco
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