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Duke lags behind peers in revenue from inventions

Ashutosh Chilkoti of the biomedical engineering department is one speedy inventor. In about seven years at the University, he has obtained patents for five of his inventions, including one that targets cancer drugs to tumors using heat-sensitive polymers.

Chilkoti's contributions are part of a relatively slight revenue stream from professors' inventions, especially when compared with revenues at peer institutions.

The University encourages researchers to pursue patents and licenses off their scientific research and scholarship. Depending on the size of income derived from their inventions, the money is then distributed in different proportions to the inventor, the inventor's department and laboratory, the University and the Office of Science and Technology.

According to data from an annual survey compiled by the Association of University Technology Managers, Duke ranked 22nd for total sponsored research expenditures and 27th for adjusted gross licensing income received in the 2001 fiscal year.

Duke reported an income of about $5.6 million in that year. A total of 116 patents were filed, of which only 50 were issued.

In comparison, Columbia University ranked first in income, scoring $129.9 million, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked second with nearly $74 million.

Linda Abruzzini, OST associate director, said that for some universities, the bulk of licensing revenue can usually be attributed to a fairly small number of inventions, which she called "big hits."

"These big hits can sometimes take years to come to fruition in terms of revenue," Abruzzini said. "Increasing the number of invention disclosures and patent filings may thus not necessarily lead to significant boosts in licensing revenue in the short or long term."

The complete AUTM survey addresses other metrics beyond just licensing income, including receipt of research support in lieu of licensing fees, reimbursement of patent costs, formation of start-up companies and issued patents.

Not including the School of Medicine, Chilkoti said Duke did not have an entrepreneurial culture comparable to universities like MIT or Stanford University. Duke, he said, could perhaps attract more entrepreneurial researchers as a way to increase the number of patents received.

"[MIT's or Stanford's] is a long tradition of entrepreneurial activity," Chilkoti said. "I don't care if the University takes half of my royalties, as long as they are marketing my invention aggressively."

Abruzzini said many academic institutions that ranked above Duke in the 2001 survey in terms of licensing revenue had established active technology transfer offices well before Duke.

Daniel Gauthier, associate professor of physics and biomedical engineering, said that 10 years ago, Duke did not really foster a climate encouraging people to apply for patents. This, he said, has changed over the last six years. The University started to be "more aggressive" and made patenting easier by streamlining the patent disclosure process.

"In the future, you'll see a huge increase in patenting from the School of Engineering. The royalty money is very precious. It has no strings attached," Gauthier said.

But invention management may also be maligned with its own set of legal problems. Former Duke physicist John Madey sued the University in 2001, alleging that the institution infringed upon his patents in connection with the Mark III free-electron laser. A federal appellate court ruled in Madey's favor last year, but the U.S. Supreme Court may soon consider the case.


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