Universities Report $1.8-Billion in Earnings on Inventions in 2011

August 28, 2012

[This article originally contained several numerical errors that have now been corrected. Details on those corrections appear below.]

Universities and their inventors earned more than $1.8-billion from commercializing their academic research in the 2011 fiscal year, collecting royalties from new breeds of wheat, from a new drug for the treatment of HIV, and from longstanding arrangements over enduring products like Gatorade.

Northwestern University earned the most of any institution reporting, with more than $191-million in licensing income.

The 157 universities that responded to the annual survey of the Association of University Technology Managers, released on Monday, completed 5,398 licenses and filed for 12,090 new patents. They also created 617 start-up companies.

The overall revenue figures are about the same as in the 2010 fiscal year, when 155 universities responded. The number of licenses and options completed in 2011 was notably higher than the 4,735 reported in 2010, but in part that was because some institutions began to include more of them in their totals. The number of new patent applications filed was also higher.

The totals include data from four institutions that answered anonymously and are not included in the sortable table that accompanies this article. (Year-to-year comparisons for the survey are imperfect because, in some years, institutions that are the most active in patenting and licensing don't participate. Also some participating institutions provide only partial responses.)

The 617 start-up companies formed in 2011 was a slight increase from the 613 reported in the previous year. Start-up companies appeared to be a growing focus for some of the institutions in the survey. In 2010, 12 institutions reported forming 10 or more companies; in 2011, 14 institutions did so.

That attention reflects broader economic forces, says Tony Stanco, executive director of the National Council on Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer. With big corporations doing less and less hiring, there is "more of an awareness from students and faculty that entrepreneurship is a growing career path, a growing alternative," he says. And says Mr. Stanco, new Ph.D. recipients now realize that one way to continue their research is "though the venture path."

'Off the Beaten Path'

The University of Florida's David Day says licensing inventions to start-ups also makes sense for institutions like his, which still collects revenue from the trademark it holds on the Gatorade sports drink and related products. "We're a little off the beaten path," so the homegrown approach is a logical one, says Mr. Day, director of Florida's Office of Technology Licensing.

Florida, which formed 12 start-up companies in 2011, is also investing in facilities and programs to help incubate new companies and foster innovation, including plans for a privately financed 180-room residence hall, nicknamed the "Dormcupator," for students interested in entrepreneurship.

Lesley Millar, director of the Office of Technology Management at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the focus on entrepreneurship at her institution is one reason for the big jump in the number of start-up companies formed there.

The campus, combined with the University of Illinois at Chicago, reported 21 new start-up companies in 2011, including Nuvixa, which is developing audio-visual conferencing technology, and the Xerion Advanced Battery Corporation, which uses nanotechnology to create fast-charging batteries for cars and electronic devices. In 2010 the two institutions created just eight companies.

Urbana-Champaign now has five entrepreneurs-in-residence "to provide very early guidance to faculty" on forming start-up companies, says Ms. Millar. It continues this "sequential" support for start-ups through the early stages of commercialization, including access to investment capital through a fund called Illinois Ventures. "That was missing 10 years ago," she says.

The Illinois campuses also saw an increase in overall licensing income, from $13.4-million in 2010 to $17.4-million in 2011, in part due to growing sales of an HIV drug called Prezista, developed at Chicago.

As in past years, a few institutions accounted for a large proportion of universities' overall licensing income: Northwestern's $191.5-million accounted for more than 10 percent of the total reported. Its revenue, combined with four other $100-million-plus earners—the 10-campus University of California system, and Columbia, New York, and Princeton Universities—accounts for more than 40 percent of the total.

Of the 153 colleges and universities that responded publicly to the latest survey, 23 reported annual licensing income of $15-million or more; in 2010, 22 institutions reported that much. (In a news release, the technology managers' association reports cumulative data for not only the universities but also for a technology-investment firm and 28 hospitals and research organizations that responded to its survey.)

New Strains of Wheat

One newcomer to the list of big earners was the University of Nebraska. Its revenue from licensing grew from just over $3.7-million in 2010 to more than $16.7-million in 2011.

"A big part of it," says David Conrad, executive director of NUTech Ventures, the nonprofit corporation that manages inventions for the University of Nebraska, was the result of a research relationship the campus at Lincoln formed in December 2010 with Bayer Crop Science.

The German company is working with the university to generate new varieties of wheat that can be sold throughout Europe and other markets where genetically modified crops are not welcome. Some of that work has already produced new strains of wheat which are being sold.

Mr. Conrad says NUTech Ventures is also benefiting from what he calls "a relationship-based model for tech transfer" with the goal of working with licensees so they'll become repeat customers. He says the corporation tries to attract licensees with good service, not below-market prices. "Some of those companies have already come back to do subsequent deals," he says.

Nebraska is also working to encourage more of its faculty and students to make a great effort to identify possible new inventions and disclose them to NUTech Ventures. Four years ago, the invention-disclosure rate for the university was about 60 a year, he says. Now it's more like 160 a year.

"The faculty are much more engaged in tech transfer," he says, "and the students are much more engaged."

Cornell University reported a notable uptick in the number of licenses signed, with 162 in 2011. Some of that increase, from 37 in 2010, resulted from counting more of its smaller licenses than before, Cornell officials say.

It also reflects a new approach. The university is offering more of its technologies on a nonexclusive basis, and it is also making a conscious effort to sign more deals, even if that means forgoing upfront payments, being less demanding about royalty rates, and forgoing other "short-term economic benefits" for the sake of getting deals done, says Alan Paau, Cornell's vice provost for technology transfer and economic development.

"We know not every deal is going to be a success," he says, but the institution is now more willing to take a chance. "We're more promiscuous now."

Carmen Mendoza and Josh Keller contributed to this article.

Corrections (8/28/2012, 5:42 p.m.): Because of miscalculations of data provided by the Association of University Technology Managers, this article originally misreported several totals of universities' activity in areas measured by the group's survey. Total licensing revenue in 2011 was more than $1.8-billion, not more than $1.4-billion. Total number of licenses completed was 5,398, not 4,082. Total patent filings were 12,090, not 9,662. Total start-up companies formed were 617, not 482. Total participants in the survey were 157, including four anonymously, not 153. As a result of the recalculations, the 2011 totals did not lag behind the 2010 totals but were about the same. And the five institutions that earned at least $100-million accounted for more than 40 percent of the total, not more than half. This article and the accompanying table showing tallies for individual universities have been updated to reflect these corrections.