Last month, the Ohio Board of Regents put out a report on the role corporate money should play in public university research.
It followed a similar paper published by the national Committee on Research Universities.
Both groups had the same message: federal funding for research is dwindling, so universities should embrace new partners in the business sector.
Robert Miller’s lab at Case Western Reserve University is full of test tubes, slides, gigantic microscopes, and boxes of mice.
His research focuses on how to cure Multiple Sclerosis, and part of the way to do that is by running tests on infected mice.
It’s the type of work that’s pretty easy to commercialize. After all, if Miller finds a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, pharmaceutical companies will come running.
But most universities have not been thinking like that.
Jim Petro, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, puts it this way, “we were no silicon valley.”
Petro says Ohio was “not generating the kind of product and product development from the results of that research that we might see in other venues.”
Which is why the Board decided to take a closer look at commercialization.
The premise of the regent’s report is that universities must rely on a variety of funders, including the corporate world. It also argues that once that research is done, schools should be doing more with their findings than writing papers for scientific journals that few people read.
Papers published in notable scientific journals are good, says Petro, “but boy you can’t underrate those opportunities that actually result in a product, some thing that can change society, in some ways, much more than a paper could.”
Writing used to be the standard for getting ahead in academia, and corporate dollars for funding research were frowned upon.
These days, “all money is green, it spends,” says Caroline Whitacre, Ohio State’s vice president for research.
Whitacre says university officials and researchers “used to distinguish between federal dollars as the best versus industry dollars which were somehow not quite so good, and that’s sort of disappeared.”
Whitacre says there’s been a shift lately in what’s acceptable in the university setting.
For example, the Board of Regents report suggests including commercialization – like when researchers at Penn State successfully patented a new type of mushroom, or when researchers at the University of Minnesota saw the AIDS drug Ziagen hit the market – in the tenure process.
That’s something Ohio State has already embraced.
The students in Robert Miller’s lab at Case Western Reserve University like the idea of their work reaching a market.
Sharyl Fyffe-Maricich is a post-doctoral researcher in the lab. She is at the beginning of her career, so she says she would like to see her research on Multiple Sclerosis through to market.
But more than seeing her product on drug store shelves, Fyffe-Maricich says, “the goal is for what we do on the basic level to go on and help patients eventually.”
Commercialization has come a long way in the past couple years, but it still presents a lot of challenges.
Board of Regents Chancellor Jim Petro says, “there is no doubt that through commercialization there will be possible conflicts of interest, there will be battles over patents and copyrights.”
Those battles over copyrights are what worry Sharrell Mikesell the most.
Mikesell heads the Industry Liaison Office at Ohio State, created a few years ago to help convince companies to fund research at the university.
Mikesell used to be a company man himself. He spent 35 years at places like GE, Owens Corning and an Exxon Mobile subsidiary. Those are the kinds of companies that, over the years, have teamed up with universities to develop new airplane engines and clean hydrogen fuel systems.
But sometimes, partnerships like those don’t go so smoothly, and get bogged down in battles over money and control.
Mikesell says if universities focus too much on haggling over patents and licenses, they’ll scare companies away.
“To me, the bigger play is: Let’s build that annual research enterprise from $800 million to $1 billion and that’ll be a bigger deal than getting a few hundred dollars or a few million of a royalty,” he says.
As much as 20 percent of the 800 million dollars Ohio State spends annually on research comes from industry. The university has 750 active contracts with companies all over the world. And Ohio State just hired someone to streamline the commercialization process. The hope is that if it’s easier to get patents and licenses, companies will be more likely to partner with the university.
Robert Miller, the VP for research at Case Western Reserve University, says any university interested in research should learn to embrace industry.
“The university culture is moving rapidly to be more integrative and more interactive,” he says. “And I think that corporate partners are beginning to realize the benefits they can have if they are a little bit more flexible in their interactions with a university.”
But, Miller says universities shouldn’t go too crazy with commercialization.
He says there is a risk that “the pendulum could swing to the point where research universities are too committed to commercialization and begin to lose their primary job, which is education and basic research.”
Miller says if basic research is left behind, the pipeline for commercialization will eventually dry up. After all, even the Internet is the result of years of basic research.