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Virginia Universities Draw Criticism For Tech Transfer Programs

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Virginia Commonwealth University's Tech Transfer program protects and commercializes inventions created by faculty members.
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Virginia Commonwealth University's Tech Transfer program protects and commercializes inventions created by faculty members.

The CEO of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System gets his daily exercise in swimming laps in a pool. He envied friends who could listen to music when they worked out, so he consulted a famous audiologist at VCU, an expert on how we hear. Together, they came up with an idea, but neither had expertise in manufacturing or marketing, so they turned to Ivelina Metcheva, who heads VCU's office of Technology Transfer.

"They developed a device that allows you to listen to music underwater, based on bone conduction," she says. "What it does is allow the sound to be transmitted on your bones of the skull instead of your ears underwater."

Metcheva is constantly rubbing shoulders with the private sector and non-for-profits, trying to match their needs with the innovations of faculty members at VCU, and she found a California company willing to license, produce and sell the underwater music player dubbed Swim-P-3. More than 80 percent of VCU's patents involve medicine or engineering. Scientists there are now testing a drug to treat sickle cell anemia, and they've developed a bandage that stops bleeding on the battlefield and in the operating room.

Marketable products and services also come from universities' business schools, education departments, and even administration. VCU developed a software system to help other colleges and universities get accreditation. When its client list topped 20, the school decided to spin off Centiva.

"It's too much work, and the university said I'm not in the business of running businesses," says Metcheva. "The university's mission is research and education."

VCU's Tech Transfer office now covers its marketing and patenting expenses for more than a hundred faculty, staff and student inventors who come in each year.

"But we have not hit it big yet," Metcheva says.

In fact, fewer than ten percent of universities make money on Tech Transfer.

"You know everyone would love them to be profitable, but they're just not," says Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"There are a few universities who make a lot of money, but they're few and far between, and that's often because they've had one or two really big hits on a drug," she says. "NYU has made a fortune of money on Remicade, but most universities are not making a fortune of money on Remicade, and a lot of them are chasing that dollar, and there are a lot of warnings out there that that's a dangerous tactic."

The National Academy of Sciences agrees. In 2010, it issued a report warning the likelihood of success is small, the probability of disappointed expectations high, and schools risk distorting and narrowing the dissemination of new knowledge. In other words, the prospect of profit could prompt universities to behave like for-profit companies, instead of the freethinking places they were meant to be.

Some critics also worry that the public is paying twice, subsidizing research that leads to products that are sold by corporations for a profit.

"Publicly funded universities are taking on a risk, developing a drug that the drug companies are then selling, and the then public is paying for them again at the other end, through our Medicare and Medicaid programs and our insurance programs," says Blumenstyk. "There's really not a lot of check in the system along the way about cost controls."

Those concerns have led some schools to back away from programs that aggressively promote commercialization. But this state's big three -- UVA, Virginia Tech and VCU -- are pressing ahead.

In Part 2, officials from Virginia's universities defend Technology Transfer programs, citing the benefits to faculty, students and members of the public that go beyond the monetary.

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