Independence vs. marketplace

Johns Hopkins' academic research hasn't translated into commercialization riches

May 20, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

Criticizing the Johns Hopkins University's technology-transfer office for its weak track record in moving school inventions to the marketplace is something of a sport in Maryland, particularly for the school's employees.

But that reputation is undeserved, said Wesley D. Blakeslee, an intellectual property attorney who's also the 34-year-old office's new head.

"Hopkins may not do the best job that Hopkins could do, but this office does a hell of a job," he said. "These people work."

During a recent two-hour interview, Blakeslee shed tears over what he called the breadth of faculty brilliance and generosity at the university. But he also expressed frustration over an autonomous academic culture that often resists riches, shuns publicity and would rather give its innovations away than charge for them.

While Hopkins is known for its research breakthroughs, including being among the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells, it's also known for extraordinary independence among its faculty and departments.

Such freedom fosters the university's scholastic endeavors. But those responsible for Hopkins' technology transfer also say it slows commercialization there.

The university spends more than any other on research, but ranks last among its peers in turning its ideas into profits.

And more schools like Hopkins hope to produce revenue from in-house research in part because federal funds are declining and university officials are looking for other financial sources.

Many researchers are unwilling to consider the business angles of their inventions, having been taught for years that money isn't the point of their work but that helping the world is. Blakeslee wants researchers to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive.

"It's a much harder job because of the politics inside of the university than I anticipated," said Blakeslee, who took on the technology-transfer challenge - after eight years as a Hopkins lawyer - in late September. He's the office's third leader in as many years.

"I thought it would take six months [to turn things around]," he said. "I'm at least a year from a normal life."

Technology transfer, as it's known, is rooted in the idea that the bright ideas springing up in the nation's laboratories and universities should make their way into the public domain as new products, procedures and cures. But to do that, the inventions often need a commercial bridge, a business of some sort that can pay for further development and eventually bring them to market.

On the whole, with a few exceptions such as Stanford University, schools are historically bad at creating these partnerships.

"A primary issue is really the culture of a university and how focused it is on this," said James L. Hughes, vice president of research and development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

That school earned $500,000 from 2003 through 2005 in licensing income, though it spent $1 billion in research during that time.

Academics typically aren't focused on business applications for their research. And some companies and investors shy away from much of the early-stage work coming out of universities - particularly in the medical field, where it can take a dozen plus years to commercialize an invention. That's longer than most venture capitalists are willing to wait for a return on their investment, said John S. Taylor, vice president of research at the National Venture Capital Association, based in Virginia.

The lack of commercialization means great ideas might not be put to work for the greater good. But the pressure to produce such partnerships has been ramping up lately as available federal funds decline and university officials look for other financial sources.

Some say licensing deals and spin-out companies could make up the cash difference and help support more research, which has led to intensified scrutiny of technology-transfer offices. And because of its reputation and the amount of government money it brings in, Hopkins takes the brunt of the criticism from Maryland economic development officials.

"The data ... it's not pretty," said Timothy P. Weihs, a Hopkins professor who was able to turn his invention for a heat-producing foil into a business, Reactive NanoTechnologies Inc., despite the school's culture, which he said traditionally has not prioritized moving technology forward.

The university brings in more than $1 billion a year in federal funds. It also is high on the list when it comes to filing for patents on its faculty's inventions, according to data from the Association of University Technology Managers, known as AUTM.

Yet Hopkins, with its top-tier medical school, is well below its comparable peers in reaping profit from pairing such projects with the businesses and financiers who could turn them into products, or at least income.

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