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November-December 2009

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University Technology Transfer in Tough Economic Times

In 1907, Frederick Cottrell, professor of chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley and father of the modern academic patent, worried that if universities became too directly involved in patenting and licensing operations, their thirst for profits could lead to the erosion of the openness necessary for academic science to flourish. For another 70 years, most universities stayed out of the commercialization business. By the 1980s, however, government enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act, the rise of biotechnology, and pressure to realize new sources of revenue to support the academic enterprise led to a complete reversal of course.

Today, most research universities and a growing number of comprehensive institutions have well-developed technology-transfer programs, replete with staffs of licensing professionals (which more than doubled between 1996 and 2005) and a burgeoning array of support elements, including seed-capital funds to support start-up companies, business incubators, and related economic-development infrastructure.

Joshua Powers is an associate professor of higher education leadership and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University.  

Eric Campbell is an associate professor of medicine at the Institute for Health Policy at Harvard Medical School.

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