Hopkins lab reaps commercial success

APL: The lab earns millions through license agreements and grants related to technologies its scientists and engineers have created.

July 29, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

For decades, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has been the hush-hush incubator of many top-secret federal experiments.

But the research-and-development arm of Baltimore's noted university has taken on a new role because of its technology transfer office: It has become a place where businesses are born.

The 60-year-old lab still drinks in a half-billion dollars a year of federal money to produce lighter, tighter, faster and smarter technologies for Navy missiles, NASA spacecraft and Department of Defense weapons, but it is also generating $10 million on its own through license agreements and research grants related to the technologies its scientists and engineers have created.

It is ranked eighth nationally among technology transfer offices in the number of new U.S. patent applications.

"We are trying to get good-quality inventions," said Kristin M. Gray, assistant director of the office. "The name of the game is licensing."

In the three years since the APL Technology Transfer office opened, the office has helped start the patent process for more than 400 technologies and has licensed more than 60 of those to 38 companies in Maryland and across the nation.

The number of ideas scientists have offered for commercial applications has nearly tripled from about 50 annually before the office's inception to about 130 - two to three a week - as it has encouraged researchers to think more broadly about their work and ideas that can be sold.

Among the results are a laser and dye that more accurately zaps vision-blurring blood vessel growth at the back of the eye; software that tracks the ripple effect of waves in the world's oceans; and filters that sniff out explosives. All of those technologies are reality today and could soon be in doctors' offices and conference rooms, and at security checkpoints.

"Some of the pleasure is being able to create something of value and something new," said John Murphy, a physicist and one of the more prolific inventors. He has worked at the lab for 43 years.

"The lab hasn't always found it really important" to translate research into commercial products, he said. But it has "certainly done a much better job of trying to make that work."

The technology transfer office opened in July 1999, with Wayne Swann as its director. Swann had been executive director of the office of technology liaison for the University of Maryland, College Park, for more than a dozen years before joining the lab.

The creation of the technology transfer office was part of a strategic development plan for the lab, which during its six decades had fewer than 10 inventions commercialized and no companies spun off.

With the new office, the facility was responsible for inventions that an agency other than the federal government could afford, spinning off new companies and marketing its inventions for licensing agreements to other established companies, particularly those within Maryland.

According to Swann, it's a way the research university can fulfill its mission of providing public benefit.

"If you do research and it just sits here, nobody benefits," Swann said. "Not every invention is going to be licensable, but those that are, it's a waste if they're not."

That goal has broader implications than just for APL, according to Phillip Singerman, executive director of the state Technology Development Corporation.

"I think if we were able to really capitalize on the R and D [in Maryland], you'd be able to create scores of companies, thousands of jobs annually and attract millions in venture money," he said.

According to the Association of University Technology Managers, a professional organization for people involved in intellectual property management, technology transfer from universities, teaching hospitals, research institutions and patent management firms added more than $40 billion to the national economy and supported more than 270,000 jobs in fiscal 1999.

Though no one had a specific measurement of the impact APL's spun-off technologies have had on the state's economy, they are having an effect.

Nearly half of the companies that have licensed technologies from the lab are based in Maryland, and three - Syntonics Corp., Sphere and Dot21 Real-Time Systems Inc. - are new companies that are in or have graduated from the Howard County Economic Development Authority's NeoTech incubator.

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