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Benefits Of Tech Transfer Outweigh Costs For Virginia Universities

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Critics say schools like the University of Virginia, pictured, shouldn't let the pursuit of profit overtake their other obligations.
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Critics say schools like the University of Virginia, pictured, shouldn't let the pursuit of profit overtake their other obligations.

With federal and state funds for higher education falling, many schools are turning to faculty inventors to find profitable solutions to the world's medical, social and technical problems. Professors, their departments and their universities can all make money with what's called "Tech Transfer" — moving innovations from academia into the mainstream. It's a practice that more schools in the Commonwealth are embracing, despite some concerns that universities are taking unnecessary risks for the possibility of a big payday.

You might think college professors and research teams could easily make big bucks for their schools by coming up with new medications and technologies, but the fact is that few of them do.

"There are about 144 universities that have regularly over the past 20 years responded to the annual survey of results, and about 9-10 of them have consistently made what I would call blockbuster amounts of money," says Mark Crowell, the vice president of business development at the University of Virginia.

Tech Transfer Benefits Go Beyond Money

Even so, Crowell, who came to the University of Virginia from North Carolina's Research Triangle, says there are other reasons to push academic advances into the mainstream: "I remember, in North Carolina, when we were 49th in per capita income, and when our young people had to leave the state to get jobs. I look at Research Triangle Park now, and you begin to see how we have transformed a region."

And at Virginia Tech's Intellectual Properties office, President Mark Coburn says the large industrial park that surrounds his office provides important opportunities for students.

"They get first-hand knowledge of working in an environment which is business-like, and working with companies," says Coburn.

He admits Tech Transfer doesn't break even at Virginia Tech, but by other measures it's a success.

"If you look at our research dollars, we do twice as many patent applications, twice as many licenses," says Coburn. "It seems across the board we're kind of a two-fer. Even with start-up companies, we do twice as many as the average."

And if the Food and Drug Administration approves a new treatment for Gaucher's Disease, a rare condition that requires people to take lifelong enzyme supplements, Tech could bring in a lot more money from a product derived from tobacco plants.

The University of Virginia say its Technology Transfer Office earns enough to pay for itself, and Mark Crowell says the service it provides — helping professors to turn their inventions into businesses — draws top talent to campus.

"Today, I'm going over to a department in the school of engineering to visit with a candidate for one of their faculty chairs, and this is a person from MIT who already has been involved in two start-up companies, and he wants to interview me to see if he comes to UVA can he be successful," says Crowell.

What's more, he argues, universities have a responsibility to help with big social, medical, environmental and technical problems, even if it doesn't make them rich: "One of my proudest moments ever was when we actually licensed something out of the Department of Romance Languages — a web-based module for training healthcare workers how to interview migrant workers about their healthcare needs. The university will probably make $2,000 a year in a good year on the royalty stream."

Tech Transfer Fosters Cooperation, Not Competition

Some critics say universities have gone too far in promoting businesses. They ask if schools should be competing with one another for profit and wonder if we're draining talent from classrooms by pitting professors against professors.

Mark Coburn thinks not. He says Virginia schools rarely overlap in applying for grants, and when two or more universities are working on the same problem, they often collaborate. In fact, they've formed the Academic Licensing Community of Virginia or ALCOVe which meets several times a year.

"Tech transfer professionals from UVA, VCU, Old Dominion, Eastern Virginia and even Liberty University, which is getting more involved in research, joined us recently," says Coburn. "You know, basically, we're all working together to move technologies forward."

And there's one other reason why the Tech Transfer train is moving full steam ahead. The federal government has been pushing universities to commercialize their innovations, and President Obama gave the movement a pat on the back when he visited the Rolls Royce plant near Petersburg — a state-of-the-art collaboration between UVA, Virginia Tech and the private sector.

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