A Case for Selling Academic Research

The commercialization of academic research does not threaten a university’s principle mission of teaching and research, according to executives of the first spin-off technology transfer company wholly owned by the University of Oxford in England.

Officials of Isis Innovation Ltd. spoke about the Oxford University research commercialization model at a panel discussion in the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center last week. The university model has a clear policy of its intellectual property rights and the amount of money it invests in research. The policy also makes it clear that the university will help only those scientists or inventors who wish to profit from their research; researchers who don’t support commercialization need not fear interference. It also mandates that technology transfer must come only at the end of research.

Commercialization “should not interfere with teaching or with the acquisition of new knowledge or research,” says Dr. Tim Cook, an Oxford graduate and managing director of Isis. “We look at universities as a subculture in a barter economy.”

According to Dr. Raymond Dwek, the director of Oxford’s Glycobiology Institute and co-holder of more than 70 patents, the role of a university is to grow intellectual property that must be used for public benefit. For instance, with more than 1.3 million people in need of clean drinking water and around 40 billion people threatened by the HIV and Hepatitis B viruses, research universities are essential to nurturing the talent that could devise cures. But the academic world has been hesitant to forge ties with industry, Dwek says.

“Oxford had never seen a contract in 900 years of its existence. In spite of the popularity of the Concise Oxford Dictionary and the growth of the Oxford University Press, the university was convinced that commerce had nothing to do with it,” Dwek says.

In 1982, the British drug company Monsanto became interested in some of Dwek’s research on proteins. Oxford finally signed its first big industrial contract, which would fund up to £50 million to help start the Glycobiology Institute.

“Now, we allow Harry Potter movies to be filmed in the college dining halls,” Dwek says.

In the United States, the Association of University Technology Managers was formed in the 1970s in response to concerns that inventions funded by the U.S. government were not being commercialized effectively. It association representss more than 350 universities and research institutions to help in licensing innovations.

Nobel Laureate Baruch S. Blumberg, president of the American Philosophical Society and professor of medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, says it is important to have goals in collaborations between industry and universities. For example, ExxonMobil invested $100 million in Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project in 2002 to find alternative energy fuels.

“This was a clear-cut partnership … Stanford needs the money and Exxon is trying to get credibility through its association with Stanford,” says Blumberg.

Dr. Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the Association for the Advancement of Science, says that although he is supportive of university and industry relationships “but we haven’t done it well.”

“There should be integrity of science and transparency,” Frankel says. “It should inspire public confidence.”

Cook agrees that academia and commerce have different value systems, but he says it is useful to have intermediaries to ignite the process. “Universities can contribute to economic development through commercialization of research … and they don’t have to compromise their foremost mission [of teaching and research],” he says.

-Shilpa Banerji

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