Duke has an office for taking University inventions and turning them into marketable products, but some faculty have questioned how effective it is.

When faculty and students invent things on campus, they turn to the Office of Licensing and Ventures to handle technology transfer—the process that brings inventions to the market. In recent years, faculty have argued that the OLV does not sufficiently facilitate innovation on campus. But although there is room for improvement, the notion that the OLV is endangering entrepreneurship may be extreme, said Eric Toone, professor of chemistry and leader of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“To the extent that there are perceived shortcomings with the OLV, they have more to do with some misapprehension with OLV’s role in the tech transfer process,” Toone said. “It’s just there to protect intellectual property for the University.”

From Duke to market

Under Duke’s current technology transfer system, all faculty and student inventions created with Duke resources must be submitted to the OLV in an Invention Disclosure Form. The office then evaluates the invention and decides whether it is worth pursuing a patent for it.

One concern that some faculty, such as Bill Brown, professor of the practice of law, have is that the OLV may not be properly staffed to adequately handle all the invention disclosure forms that go through the office.

“The University has a problem identifying what’s worthwhile and what’s not,” Brown said. “[The OLV] is in a really tough position to take on all these inventions.”

In fiscal year 2012, OLV received a total 214 IDFs, according to statistics provided by the office. A little more than half of the forms—117—were deemed to have potential in the market and were moved directly into active marketing mode. For these 117 technologies, Duke claimed intellectual property rights. Approximately 20 percent of the submitted IDFs were evaluated as unsuitable for the market environment and were offered back to the inventors with no claims on the property rights of the inventions. The remaining 25 percent of submitted innovations were placed in a strategic hold in which a potential product requires further development before patenting and licensing.

Brown suggested that some of the work could be outsourced to experts in appropriate departments to evaluate the inventions more fairly. That way, good ideas are not lost in a sea of IDFs, he said.

Currently, the OLV has eight full-time employees and three part-time employees that handle the technology transfer process. Though a larger staff is always advantageous, resources are limited and the OLV is currently capable of handling the volume of IDFs received, said Rose Ritts, executive director of the OLV.

“What I’d like to see is the numbers of disclosures increase,” Ritts said. “That would drive the staff for the OLV to increase as well.”

Arti Rai, professor of law, also expressed some concern about the professional background of the OLV staff and their ability to act as liaisons between inventors and an industry.

“The technology transfer process is best viewed as an opportunity for building relationships with industry,” Rai wrote in an email Tuesday. “Individual faculty members working in a particular field often have the best contacts with a given industry.”

Although faculty members provide a high level of expertise, quite a few of the OLV staff also hold advanced degrees in the natural sciences that give them technical expertise in their own right, Ritts said. The role of the OLV is to act as a conduit into the market environment.

“What we do is track what’s happening in the market space,” Ritts said. “We do have the technical skills, but the real thing that helps us is the connectivity to a continually changing market.”

She added that the OLV works very closely with the inventors themselves, who are usually the most qualified technical experts in most cases.

There may be another misconception about the OLV that has led to perceptions of inadequacy in OLV staff. IDFs are not judged based on how much money they can bring in or how valuable the proposed ideas are, Ritts said. The key is to find a partner willing to pay for this invention to make it to the market.

“The question becomes whether there’s a strategy that has enough of the pieces needed to get a successful licensing agreement,” Ritts said. “As long as we can find a partner, then we move forward, regardless of what the technology is.”

Not an incubator

Because of the OLV’s strictly technical role in technology transfer, faculty looking to the office for funds or a nurturing environment will likely be disappointed, Toone noted.

“[The OLV] is not a venture capital fund or an incubator for new inventions and ideas,” Toone said. “Right now, OLV is just a piece of the process.”

The University would benefit from a large central incubator offering guidance on the process of turning inventions into products, Toone added. He pointed to the Duke Translational Research Institute and the Duke Translational Medicine Institute as two groups that provide valuable information about how mostly medical innovations fit into the broader market.

Ritts said her greatest frustration is not being able to provide inventors with a nurturing environment.

“Before people even have a working invention, they have a lot of questions and they need mentoring and a community,” Ritts said. “I haven’t had the resources to provide them with that. There are pockets of those resources, but it’s just not enough.”

Experts who study patent policy have argued that Duke may come up short in terms of entrepreneurial atmosphere when compared to places like Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robert Cook-Deegan, director for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy said that perhaps the question to ask is not what the University is doing wrong, but rather what Stanford and MIT did to get it right.

Toone said, however, that it is not fair to compare Duke to these two schools because the environment surrounding each of the institutions differs too greatly.

“Stanford is in Palo Alto and you have MIT in Boston—half of all the venture money is invested in these two places,” Toone said. “We have Research Triangle Park, but nobody lives there. There are no restaurants, so it’s hard to attract the right people to come here.”

There is plenty of entrepreneurial spirit within the Duke community, but right now, Duke does not have the “critical mass” needed to attract private equity firms or CEOs to the area, Toone noted. Although RTP is gradually becoming more entrepreneurship-friendly, there is still a large gap in the support available for technology transfer programs in the Triangle area relative to Stanford and MIT.