Hopkins at center of local debate over technology transfer


May 31, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Greater Baltimore Committee, JEF DAUBER/STAFF GRAPHICSStaff Writer

The once impenetrable doors of the Johns Hopkins University and medical school are being pried apart these days by businessmen and academics who hope a wealth of scientific research will come spilling out.

Waiting on the sidewalk are venture capitalists and entrepreneurs eager to turn the magic of the laboratories into medical devices, drugs and other marketable products.

Since the state and the Greater Baltimore Committee decided to stake Baltimore's economic future on the emergence of biotechnology and the life sciences, the spotlight has turned on Hopkins, which, like the National Institutes of Health, is seen as a critical drawing card for the region, pulling to Baltimore businesses that want to be close to cutting-edge science.

But there is still a debate among faculty members about how far the university should go toward commercialization, a question that cuts to the heart of the university's role in society.

"There is something fundamental about faculty being able to search out truth without any consideration to commercial use," said Jared Cohon, vice provost for research at Hopkins.

Dr. Cohon, one of those at Hopkins eager to see the doors flung wide, still believes the university must be careful not to compromise its research role.

Businesses, in contrast, watch with intense frustration and interest at the goings on at the Hopkins complex, a place they have viewed as arrogant, aloof and uncooperative.

For all its distinguished list of discoveries, from the surgical rubber glove in 1889 to a genetically-based test for colon cancer this year, Hopkins inventors have been well-known for their indifference about getting their discoveries to market in the past.

"The critical thing in commercialization is getting Hopkins to change," said Charles Newhall, a venture capitalist with New Enterprise Associates, which has financed many biotechnology businesses.

He said Hopkins, a politically complex organization that company officials find difficult to understand or deal with, could do more to promote relationships between faculty members and venture capitalists.

Hopkins says it is trying to change. Dr. Michael Johns, the new medical school dean, and Dr. Cohon are attempting to tear down some of the ivory tower.

"A part of the mission of the medical school is discovery, and a part is to improve the health of humankind," Dr. Johns said. "Unless we move our discovery into application, we haven't accomplished our mission."

One measure of how well a university does in commercializing its discoveries is the number of licenses and patents to come out of its laboratories in relation to the money spent on research. When faculty members make discoveries, they can request that the university patent their work. If a company decides to base a product on a patent, the university receives royalties.

In a 1991 survey for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of local business leaders compared Hopkins and the University of Maryland with two universities that have a record of promoting technology transfer.

Elizabeth Nitze, strategic planning consultant for the GBC, found that for every $18 million spent on research in the life sciences at Hopkins from 1989 to 1990, only one license agreement resulted. Stanford University in California produced one license for every $2 million, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge had one licensing deal for every $1 million spent on research.

Hopkins officials do not dispute their history, but they argue that much has changed in the past year. First, a technology transfer office and a licensing office have been expanded and Scott Sherman, a lawyer and former business consultant, was hired in January as a corporate liaison between industry and the medical school's faculty.

Mr. Sherman will help companies find scientists doing work in their field and promote a better working relationship between the faculty and the corporate world. In addition, he would like to find ways Hopkins can provide the state with expertise in identifying companies that might be wooed to Maryland.

The number of licenses and patents has increased. In 1986, six were granted to the university, amounting to $153,000 in income. Five years later, 27 licenses were granted, producing $1.5 million in revenue for the university.

"The number of disclosures is mushrooming," Mr. Sherman said, referring to the number of times a faculty member comes to the university to declare an invention. That rate is now up to two a week. Down the road, the university hopes to see those inventions patented.

In part, the increase results from the rapid pace of science, particularly biology, these days. "We have graduate students who do the work of a lifetime of a prior generation," Dr. Johns said.

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