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Can industry-backed academic inventions spur increased innovation?

By Nathan Gray+


Can industry-backed academic inventions spur increased innovation?

Industry-sponsored academic research leads to innovative patents and licenses, and may not skew science towards inventions that are less accessible and less useful to others, according to a new analysis.

The analysis, published in Nature, is based on a study of two decades of records from the University of California - finding that corporate-sponsored inventions are licensed and cited more often than federally sponsored ones

Led by Professor Brian Wright from the University of California, Berkeley, the team analysed more than 12,500 inventions from nine University of California campuses and three associated national laboratories - finding that nearly 1,500 were supported at least partly by private industry, and calling into question assumptions that corporate support skews science toward inventions that are less accessible and less useful to others than those funded by governments or non-profit organisations.

"Although results might differ at other academic institutions, these findings should allay concerns that corporate sponsorship turns leading universities into corporate vassals," wrote the research team - who added that collecting and combining data from a larger sample of research institutions could help to explore what corporations hope to gain from funding academic work, and suggest how universities can best manage research sponsorships.

Commenting on the work, Joshua Rosenbloom, program director for Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) at the University of California said there are two potential interpretations of the report: "One is optimistic. Corporate funding leads to research that is more likely to be commercialised and this greater focus is good.

"The second reading is that corporate funding shifts the focus of research away from basic science."
Study details

The team behind the analysis looked at data from 12,516 inventions and related licenses at nine University of California campuses and three associated national laboratories. Inventions were disclosed between 1990 and 2005, while licensing activity was analysed until 2010.

Wright and his colleagues found that industry-funded inventions yielded patents and licenses more frequently than federally sponsored ones, with results consistent across technical fields.

Indeed, corporate-sponsored inventions resulted in licences (29%) and patents (35%) more frequently than federally sponsored ones (22% and 26%, respectively). While the rates were even higher for inventions with both types of sponsor; 36% were licensed and 43% patented.

They also found that industry-sponsored inventions were more highly cited in subsequent patent applications - known as 'forward citations' -the most widely used marker of a patent's quality and importance.

Each corporate-sponsored invention generated an average of 12.8 forward citations compared with 5.6 for federally sponsored inventions, they said.

"This runs counter to the expectation that corporate-sponsored inventions have narrow applications, and so create ... few benefits for others," the team wrote.

Locking up inventions for profit?

Because corporations usually get first crack at negotiating licenses to the inventions they sponsor, there is an assumption that corporations tie up innovative discoveries in a way that restricts access to a broader audience, said the team.

However, they said that the intellectual property data analysed indicate that industry has not been more likely than federally sponsored research to tie up research discoveries in exclusive licenses.

Overall, corporate-funded inventions were licensed exclusively 74% of the time, while federally funded inventions were licensed exclusively 76% of the time.

Notably, among the corporate-funded inventions with exclusive licenses, half seemed to go to third parties and not the sponsor, said the team.

"We didn't expect these results," Wright said. "We thought companies would be interested in applied research that was closer to being products, and thus more likely to be licensed exclusively and less cited than federally funded counterparts, but that did not turn out to be the case."

"Industry-funded research need not be locked up by corporate sponsors if both the sponsored research office and the tech transfer office take care in protecting and marketing the results," added co-author Stephen Merrill.

Vigilance still needed

Despite their findings, the authors said the analysis should not be used to relax oversight over industry funding, particularly when it comes to trials of products rather than the invention disclosures covered in their analysis.

"The tobacco, food, pharmaceutical and other industries have been shown to manipulate research questions and public discourse for their benefit, and even to suppress unfavourable research," the researchers wrote.

Source: Nature
Comment, Available online in full
“Technology transfer: Industry-funded academic inventions boost innovation”
Authors: Brian D. Wright, et al

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