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Last fall, after six years of work between Wentland and the OTC, and the investment in securing and prosecuting a number of patent applications in the U.S. and overseas, Rensselaer announced a license agreement granting Alkermes Inc., a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, rights to the patented and patent pending technologies. Soon after, the Institute began to receive payments for the licensing.

Wentland gains a promising next step for a medical advance he has been chasing for his entire drug discovery career. The license agreement also culminates years of research work by his students and collaborators, with funding by the National Institutes of Health. “I didn’t do it myself,” he says. “With the OTC, it went very smoothly.”

With the establishment of OTC, Rensselaer has staked its claim in the changing landscape of American research universities, where researchers are increasingly encouraged to protect their discoveries and hopefully effectively license them to industry for life-enhancing products. This year, through OTC’s efforts, licensing revenues and patent reimbursements paid to the Institute are expected to exceed $1 million, continuing a steady annual growth rate of 75 percent since 2002 when Rensselaer only generated $62,000.

Discoveries in nanotechnology, electronics, energy, biotechnology, and terahertz are all part of the Institute’s expanding intellectual property portfolio as Rensselaer increases its aggressive research initiative.

The OTC helps the Institute forge relationships with industry and also contributes to the local economy by spinning off new companies generated from the research on campus.

“Rensselaer has an absolutely rich history in both its educational and Incubator programs and now the fruits of its sponsored research are coming to the fore with new patents and technologies that Rensselaer has licensed,” says Ronald Kudla, executive director of the Office of Intellectual Property, Technology Transfer, and New Ventures, which oversees the commercialization office. “We can change the world and this is one of the ways in which Rensselaer does it.”

And yet, Rensselaer is entering a world filled with myriad challenges, one where scholars, government, industry, and the parties that try to bring them together debate how, and how much, campus research should be readied for the marketplace.

While significant royalties go to a relatively small number of institutions, many universities devote time and money negotiating deals for technologies with commercialization challenges. Industry pushes for more intellectual property rights; universities push back, shoring up legal protections. Universities also have to remain on the lookout for business copycats. Meanwhile, some scholars grapple with how prominently the profit motive should figure in higher education.

“Through royalties of the technology that is licensed, universities are really seeing a strong source of funding. But it can be controversial,” says Gina O’Connor, associate professor of management, who visits such questions with her MBA students during a class titled Business Implications of Emerging Technologies. “The role of the university is the well-being of society through education. Many also believe that when discoveries happen in universities they should be brought to everyone. There needs to be a balance and that’s where the tension is.”

Nationwide, commercializing academic research has new momentum. Until the 1980s when the Bayh-Dole Act was passed that allowed universities to manage the intellectual property stemming from federally funded research and to utilize the funds received from that activity to support research and education at the university, the universities rarely sought patent protection, let alone commercialized discoveries for the public’s benefit. In 2005, according to the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), 190 institutions reported about 4,900 new licenses and options ranging from new blockbusters in technology to small nonprofit educational programs.

The Alkermes contract brings to about 75 the license agreements that the OTC has secured since fiscal year 2002. On average, 15 to 20 licenses are added each year, and 70 to 80 discoveries are made at Rensselaer’s schools and centers. Lining up legal protections hardly guarantees that an inventor’s work hits the market, but doing so at least gives that work commercial exposure.

Last year, through the OTC’s work, funds from licensing Rensselaer’s technology were disbursed to 36 researchers and their departments. By some measures, Rensselaer already performs twice as well as the national university average of one invention disclosure for every $2 million of research conducted. Currently, Rensselaer’s OTC receives approximately one new invention disclosure per $1 million of research funding.

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By some measures, Rensselaer performs twice as well as the national university average of one invention disclosure for every $2 million of research conducted. Rensselaer receives approximately one new invention disclosure per $1 million of research funding.
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“I think the message is continued growth,” says Charles Rancourt ’70, OTC director. “We only came about because of the research, and the total research here is growing as we increase faculty and facilities. With the new biotech center and EMPAC [Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center], and as Rensselaer builds research staff, this results in additional invention disclosures that generate dollars as the process matures.”

Recent successes include BullEx Inc., a company based at the Rensselaer Technology Park that commercializes an easy-to-use and cost-saving fire extinguisher training system. The product originated from Inventor’s Studio, taught by Burt Swersey, clinical lecturer in mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering. AUTM lists the company and its product, called Intelligent Training System™, among the year’s top 25 university-originated companies for 2006, recognizing its commercial success and potential to save lives.

Also licensed in 2006 was the Molecularium, the planetarium-style animated show developed by Rensselaer researchers that uses a child-friendly format to teach basic science. Under the agreements, two companies are distributing the show around the world and plans are in the works to translate it into other languages. “The Molecularium has generated a small amount of funds,” says Linda Schadler, professor of materials science and engineering and one of three researchers behind the show. “Our goal is not to make money but to educate.”

Plenty of other Institute-owned and marketed discoveries also stand to make an impact. Among these are nanomaterials created by Partha Dutta, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering (ECSE), that can serve the energy sector and other specialized markets. The technology was licensed to Applied Nanoworks, a company that Dutta co-founded along with Eric Burnett ’81, who now heads the company.

Another instance of harnessing campus potential is the MetaChip, a biochip that screens prescription drugs for toxins well before they can reach the costly drug-trial stage. Invented by Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, the product was licensed in 2002 to Solidus Biosciences, a company based at the Incubator which Dordick co-founded. The work is funded through the National Institutes of Health and an undisclosed Solidus partner and Dordick says Rensselaer stands to earn millions of dollars a year in royalties if sales projections pan out. “The company will aid the local economy,” he added, “by providing jobs and hopefully success as a local biotech company.”

Even so, the odds of getting this far depend on funding and market forces which neither the commercialization office nor inventors can control. And transactions do not always flow as seamlessly as they did for Mark Wentland, given the disparate worlds the office is charged with bringing together. Even researchers who stand to benefit from on-campus technology transfer say the process raises basic questions about their roles as university teachers and researchers.

“What faculty thrive on is research and writing proposals to get money to support it and working with the students on it,” says Nadarajah Narendran, research director of Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center, which recently developed a method of extracting more light from white light emitting diodes (LEDs), a technology that was recently licensed to the Cyberlux Corporation.

“We’re accountable for our time,” he says. “When I wake up in the morning, am I going to write a patent, or research and teach my students? You could keep writing patents and probably many of them don’t go anywhere and you’re not working on your research.”

Rensselaer’s commercialization officers concede that researchers — who are voicing such concerns at universities across the country — are being asked to devote their time to the process. They also argue the effort can provide them an ultimate benefit in personal rewards, consulting arrangements, and potentially increased research support.

“It must be said that if one only publishes their discoveries without protecting the intellectual property, no one will invest the dollars or take the time to develop the idea for the marketplace as their investment is not protected from the competition,” says Kudla. “If the results of your research are going to have an impact on the public, it has to be patented in order to be commercialized.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.