Universities have become much more aggressive about seeking profits from inventions made by everyone from respected and experienced faculty researchers to undergraduate students working on class projects.
Recently in the New York Times, Samantha Stainburn recounts the story of Peter Zummo and Matthew Naples, a pair of undergrads at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) who designed a water bottle that can be filled with sand and used to construct housing in developing nations.
The two were surprised when RPI’s technology transfer office began inquiring about their invention, which serves the dual goals of recycling plastic water bottles and providing green construction materials for people living in poverty.
Though RPI eventually decided Zummo and Naples owned the rights to their design, the Times report cautions that inventors often are ill-prepared to handle the business end of the breakthroughs they make in the lab or classroom.
"With entrepreneurship booming, especially in courses that mix M.B.A. candidates with budding physicians or engineers, more and younger students are coming up with ideas that have commercial potential. While formal programs offer classes in managing intellectual property, plenty of students develop their ideas with little knowledge of how ownership is determined or the pros and cons of involving the university," Stainburn wrote.
The issue was thrust to the fore in 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act gave universities ownership interest in intellectual property developed on campuses using federal funds. Before Bayh-Dole, universities obtained fewer than 250 patents a year. Today they obtain 3,000 per year.
Stainburn quoted Peter Corless, a partner at the law firm Edwards, Angell, Palmer and Dodge in Boston, who said that while universities may try to help researchers, "their first allegiance is to do something for the university."