BC Launches Effort to Win Patents On Faculty Research

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A chemical compound to speed the production of life-saving medicines could be lurking in a Boston College laboratory. So could computer innovations to enhance the lives of the handicapped, or the latest in consumer products for the pantry.

But until recently, Boston College had no organized effort to win patents on discoveries made by faculty members in the course of their research.

"We weren't identifying inventions properly," said Office of Research Administration Director Stephen Erickson. "We weren't protecting the faculty, or the University, particularly well."

To bridge that gap between academia and the commercial marketplace that delivers the fruits of research to society, Boston College has recently embarked on an ambitious "technology transfer" program to identify and license products springing from faculty research.

In a technology transfer, an outside company is granted rights to develop and market a new technology under a license granted by the university, which holds the patent. Royalties are divided between the university and the faculty inventor.

Last fall, Boston College hired the firm Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives to consult with faculty scientists to identify inventions and recommend strategies for seeking patents and licenses for products of faculty research.

While reluctant to discuss specific projects that have yet to be patented or licensed, University and MassBioMed representatives said several promising new innovations in pharmaceutical development and computer science have already been identified in meetings with BC researchers, and may be made public in coming weeks and months.

"A lot of exciting stuff is going on at BC in areas that are very important," said Pamela Hochman Norton, MassBioMed's senior vice-president for business development.

Added Jeffrey C. Ditullio, a technology-licensing associate with the Worcester-based firm: "I really think BC is a sleeping giant, and we're going to see a lot more discoveries coming out."

Office of Research Administration Director Stephen Erickson.

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean and Associate Vice President for Research Michael A. Smyer said the technology-transfer effort represents "another step in the maturation of the research infrastructure of the University."

Boston College researchers set a University mark by landing more than $30 million in outside grants in fiscal 1999. The amount of grant dollars received annually for faculty and graduate student projects at BC has more than doubled over the past six years.

"Because of the research activity at the University, we know we need to help faculty protect their intellectual property," said Smyer. He described the commercial marketing of research innovations as "another way of measuring the value of faculty member's ideas - another form of peer review."

Some very well known consumer products have been byproducts of research in university laboratories, Erickson observed. Gatorade came from the University of Florida, where it was created as an electrolyte-replenishing drink for the football team, he noted, while Retin-A wrinkle-reducing cream resulted from scientific research at the University of Pennsylvania.

Countless important chemical compounds used in medicines and foods have similarly sprung from scientific labs. "Most medicines on the market today resulted from university research," Erickson said. "Without a technology-transfer effort, they could not have reached the market, pure and simple."

Patent protection is needed if a business is going to market a new technological innovation, said Erickson. "Let's say a chemical compound is found to reduce the effects of the common cold," he said. "No company wants to put millions of dollars into its development and have some other company come along and steal it for nothing."

Compliance with research sponsorship requirements will be aided in the process, Erickson said. For example, if a scientist has discovered a new chemical compound in the course of research funded by a federal grant from the National Science Foundation, the scientists must follow certain guidelines on reporting the discovery. Some private foundations have similar rules regarding inventions resulting from research they have funded.

"We can't assume those responsibilities are being met if we are not properly identifying these inventions," Erickson said. Added Smyer: "We have an obligation to explore commercial applications if research is done with federal support."

Return to March 16 menu

Return to Chronicle home page