Money Isn't Everything

Academic research is often big business these days. But the Association of University Technology Managers wants the world to know that it’s about helping people, too.

March 6, 2006

Academic research is often big business these days. But the Association of University Technology Managers wants the world to know that it’s about helping people, too.

The group released a collection of its version of heart-warming academic research stories, in the hope that people will see it isn’t all about money or esoteric discipline specific pursuits. “This is an initiative to build a better understanding of the results of academic research,” said W. Mark Crowell, past president of AUTM and associate vice chancellor for economic development and technology transfer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The “ Better World Report" is basically a book of short stories from the blockbuster discovery genre. For instance, the report gives an account of the chance conversation between brothers, both University of California at Los Angeles researchers, that led to the development of the Habitrol nicotine patch. After some improvisational research -- one of the brothers tested a patch on himself -- the brothers did rigorous experiments, and a pharmaceutical company obtained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and licensed the patch from the university. Since then, the patch has gone over the counter and reportedly helps thousands of people a year quit smoking. 

Crowell said that he got calls during his time as AUTM president, 2005-6, during which people would ask why one university bringing in less off research patents wasn’t doing “as good a job” as another. John Fraser, AUTM's new president and director of the Office of Intellectual Property Development and Commercialization at Florida State University, said the Better World Report is an effort to show that sometimes “it’s not about the money, it’s about the impact.”

Crowell added that North Carolina recently developed a Spanish language instructional program for health care workers and licensed it to Yale University Press. “It won’t show up in the AUTM survey” that tracks research revenue, “but it’s a very important story to be told.”

AUTM's campaign may also be designed to combat perceptions about what critics view as the sometimes negative impact of commercialization. As beneficial as many university partnerships with businesses have been, many researchers can recall horror stories of corporate interference with the spread of ideas. In one prominent case, Mark Skolnick, a government funded University of Utah researcher, discovered a human gene that causes some forms of hereditary breast cancer.

Rather than making it broadly available, Utah patented the gene and licensed it exclusively to Myriad Genetics, a startup founded by Skolnick. Myriad later objected to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania using the gene to analyze samples from a National Cancer Institute study. Myriad required the researchers to pay to use Myriad facilities, rather than their own, which made the cost of the tests prohibitive.

Some institutions have begun to insist that they maintain the right to share with other academic researchers, and Crowell said that AUTM is sensitive to those concerns. “Sometimes surprises come up,” he said, like the Skolnick case. “We try to learn from those, and try to educate our members.” He added that, as business has globalized, universities regularly get approached by offshore companies who want to work with them. “There are benefits that will stay [in the United States],” he said.


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