2012 a mixed bag for area universities and tech transfer efforts

Washington-area universities only recently ramped up their tech transfer efforts, so it was unreasonable to expect a major uptick in revenue, invention disclosures or patents between 2011 and 2012.

But a drop across the board? One school appears headed in the wrong direction.

Despite spending $5.2 million more on research in 2012 than in 2011, George Mason University experienced a year-over-year decline in executed licenses and options, startups, invention disclosures, patents issued, new patent applications and license revenue.

This according to data released this month by the Association of University Technology Managers, a leading advocate for university research commercialization.

Only three area universities participate in the annual AUTM survey — GMU, Georgetown University and the University of Maryland. Maryland launched its tech transfer program in 1987, Georgetown in 1993 and George Mason in 1996. (See the slideshow above for more details on each school’s 2012 numbers)

Of the trio, Maryland proved the most successful in 2012, increasing its licenses and options, startups, invention disclosures, patent applications and license revenue (by $500,000, to a still meager $1.8 million), according to the AUTM data. Georgetown boosted its license revenue by $1.7 million, to $9.8 million, but its numbers overall were down.

As for Mason, the university argues that the AUTM survey “doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening,” how it’s changing how licenses are handled or how it’s tackling the nonproductive ones. GMU has abandoned more than 70 patent applications since August 2011 but still has 133 applications pending, said Michele McDonald, a Mason spokeswoman.

“George Mason University is very excited about the new focus on company formation and the commercial potential of inventions,” Veronica Kayne, director of Mason’s Office of Technology Transfer, said in a statement. “We are delighted that despite the tough economic times of the past few years, we have nine active startups in the D.C. area alone and some already have commercial sales. And we have several evaluation licenses and options outstanding, which we hope will lead to new licenses.”

Nationwide, total tech transfer income among the 194 AUTM survey respondents rose 6.8 percent to $2.6 billion in 2012. Running royalties jumped 30.2 percent, to $1.9 billion, “an indication that university discoveries are making their way to the marketplace as important new products with significant sales,” according to the AUTM report.

Not so much here, however. Eyeing new revenue streams and regional economic diversification, Washington area universities are staffing up tech transfer offices, marketing research discoveries to the private sector, using incentives (such as tenure) to boost interest among the academic community and fostering a sense of entrepreneurship among faculty. But those efforts have yet to pay off in a big way.

No area school has hit the home run, the kind of discovery that generates millions of dollars year after year (like a Gatorade for the University of Florida). And no program here is anywhere near as robust as, say, Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the best of the best in terms of both research and tech transfer programs. Stanford and MIT earned more than $200 million combined in 2012 from licenses alone.

So we wait. An invention disclosure to a patent application to a patent award to a license sold or a successful startup — these things take time.


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