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Corporate-Sponsored University Research Valuable for Further Innovation

March 24, 2014
New research published in Nature, Technology Transfer: Industry-funded academic inventions boost innovation, provides data undermining “assumptions that corporate-funded academic research is less accessible and useful to others.” After reviewing empirical evidence covering 20 years of inventions in the University of California system the authors find that:
“Corporate-sponsored research is surprisingly valuable for further innovation. Data collected over 20 years at nine campuses and three national laboratories administered by the University of California show that corporate-sponsored inventions are licensed and cited more often than federally sponsored ones. Although results might differ at other academic institutions, these findings should allay concerns that corporate sponsorship turns leading universities into corporate vassals.”

What data supports these conclusions?
“Corporate-sponsored inventions resulted in licences (29%) and patents (35%) more frequently than federally sponsored ones (22% and 26%, respectively). The rates are higher still for inventions with both types of sponsor; 36% were licensed and 43% patented. “

“Our analysis did not support our original assumptions that licences to industry-sponsored inventions would be likely to be exclusive, or that sponsors would snap up the lion's share of exclusive licences. First, the overall percentage of corporate-sponsored inventions licensed exclusively (74%) is not higher than for those with solely public funding (76%). Second, half of the exclusive licences for corporate-sponsored inventions seem to be to third parties (although we cannot be sure that we identified all the sponsor-controlled firms in the data).”

“Another surprise is that corporate-sponsored inventions spur more 'knowledge spillovers', on average, than federally sponsored research, according to forward citation rates, the most widely used metric for patent quality and value. Forward citations show how many times one patent is cited in subsequent patents. Each corporate-sponsored invention generated, on average, 12.8 forward citations if licensed to a third party (more if licensed by the sponsor), compared with 5.6 for federally sponsored inventions. This runs counter to the expectation that corporate-sponsored inventions have narrow applications, and so create more private benefits but few benefits for others.”

“This analysis does not address how corporate funds affect universities' research agendas, but it does dispute the idea that corporations tie up all sponsored inventions to restrict access. Instead, high patent citation rates for corporate-sponsored inventions suggest that firms are funding exploratory research.”

Finally, they conclude:
“Universities setting up contracts with corporations need to be vigilant in their mission to generate and transfer knowledge, but they should not assume that companies are focused mainly on tying up intellectual property. Those that do will miss fruitful opportunities for collaboration with firms willing to fund projects from which many others will probably benefit."