Partnering at the Speed of Business: University-Company Partnerships

One of the goals of President Obama’s innovation strategy is to accelerate the rate at which new inventions that result from federally funded research at the Nation’s universities and national labs move from the lab to the marketplace. Speeding that transition spurs the creation of new industries and jobs while addressing pressing challenges such as the need for clean sources of energy and treatments for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Federal agencies have already developed a number of initiatives to increase the economic and societal impact of federally funded research.  As part of the President’s Startup America Initiative, for example, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy have made it much easier and less expensive for entrepreneurs to license intellectual property.  Using curricula such as Steve Blank’s Lean Launch Pad, NSF’s I-Corps program is preparing more faculty and students to focus on the issues that are critical to the success of an early-stage venture.

Companies and universities are also taking important steps to “partner at the speed of business.”  For example, earlier this year, Google/Motorola Mobility negotiated a Multi-University Research Agreement with eight leading public and private research universities: California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Tech University. The agreement deals with often contentious issues such as academic freedom to publish and intellectual property.

The impetus for the agreement came from Regina Dugan and Kaigham Gabriel, who served, respectively, as Director and Deputy Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) before launching a private-sector version of DARPA at Motorola Mobility called the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. They discovered that ATAP could, in a matter of days and weeks, contract with individuals and companies, but that it could take several months to negotiate an agreement with a university. These negotiations would have to be repeated with each additional university they wanted to work with, making multi-university collaborations particularly difficult.  With the agreement in place, ATAP has dramatically lowered the time and hassle factor associated with university collaborations, and are now much more likely to collaborate on specific projects.

Motorola Mobility isn’t the only organization that is experimenting with new models.  For example, Penn State University has decided that it will no longer take the position that it must own the intellectual property of products resulting from industry-funded research at Penn State.  The university believes that allowing the intellectual property to be owned by the sponsor can catalyze the commercialization of research and help the university build stronger ties with companies. Similarly, the University of Minnesota has announced the “Minnesota Innovative Partnerships,” which is designed to “eliminate the need for protracted negotiations over rights to intellectual property that may result from industry-funded research.”  A company that sponsors research at the University of Minnesota will be able to pre-pay a fee and receive a license to the intellectual property.  Companies will only have to pay royalties in cases of significant commercial success.  These and other models described in a recent Commerce Department report promise to help foster university-industry partnerships and strengthen America’s economic competitiveness.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP

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