Spinouts, licensing and inventions up but patents down

Universities in the US launched over 500 spinouts and commercialised nearly 700 new inventions in 2006, according to new figures from the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). But despite filing more applications than in preceding years, universities secured fewer patents in 2006 because of delays at the US Patent and Trademark Office. 

US patent applications from university tech transfer offices grew nearly 8 per cent to 15,908, but patents issued slipped slightly to 3255. Overall, the number of patents issued was down roughly 17 per cent after peaking in 2003, according to the AUTM report, published on 3 December. 

But the data reveals that US technology transfer offices helped take 697 new products to market and signed around 4000 new licensing deals in 2006. AUTM members that responded to the poll also launched a total of 553 new start up companies and helped secure $45.4 billion (?22.1 billion) of research funding from industry and the federal government - up from $42.3 billion the year before. 

"Almost all of our numbers are up - the new invention disclosures that we manage, the patent applications that we file, the licenses that we have signed" - Robert Tieckelmann

’Almost all of our numbers are up - the new invention disclosures that we manage, the patent applications that we file, the licenses that we have signed,’ Robert Tieckelmann, assistant vice president for the Research Foundation of the State University of New York and report’s editor, told Chemistry World

The number of staff working in university technology transfer offices continues to rise, the figures show, with over 1800 people now employed by universities to commercialise their research - over double the number in 1997. Nearly one-third of responding universities reported three or fewer technology transfer staff members, and only one-fifth had staffs numbering 15 or more. Tieckelmann noted that universities still employ far fewer staff to license thier research than the private sector. ’University tech transfer offices generally have 5 or 6 staff for out-licensing, but the licensing staff at any given large pharmaceutical company might be 30-100 people,’ he said. 

Fewer universities are now starting new tech-transfer programmes - just one new programme was launched last year. Most US universities have firmly established programmes that are over 15 years old. 

The AUTM report also details several technology transfer success stories, many of which have chemistry as their foundation. 

For example, researchers from North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences patented an ethylene-inhibiting technology, dubbed 1-MCP (1- methylcyclopropene), that delays the ripening process of fruits and vegetables. This 1996 discovery, which enables fresh produce to be preserved longer and transported anywhere, could limit the need for refrigeration. 

Rohm and Haas Company, based in Pennsylvania, US, licenced the technology in 1999 and formed the AgroFresh business to commercialize the innovation, now marketed as SmartFresh. The company, which became an independent subsidiary in 2001, is now a $50-75 million business operating in 27 countries.

Another example cited by AUTM is pregabalin - a multipurpose drug marketed as Lyrica. A Northwestern University biochemist and his postdoctoral fellow were searching for an anticonvulsant agent to treat epilepsy in 1989 when they invented the pharmaceutical, which successfully treats epilepsy as well as neuropathic pain, anxiety disorder and fibromyalgia. 

A licence agreement between Northwestern and Warner Lambert - later as acquired by Pfizer - granted exclusive rights to pregabalin. The drug hit the market in Europe in September 2004, and a year later in the US. Worldwide sales of Lyrica topped $1.2 billion last year. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA