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The term "inventor" might call to mind a wild-haired madman in a laboratory with wires and beakers strewn about, or maybe a techie in a Silicon Valley garage. But university researchers — churning out ideas and technology all the time — are big-time inventors, too, both in spirit and in the eyes of the law.
Kansas University recently joined an official club of academic inventors. In November the university became a member of the National Academy of Inventors, a Florida-based organization of institutional inventors created in 2010 and with 200 institutional members. KU joined Idaho State University, Louisiana State University and Yale University as new university members this year.
Inventing is becoming more than ever part of the university's regular business as KU garners patents and breaks revenue records for licensing technology developed by its campus researchers. In the 2013 fiscal year KU filed for 143 patents and received 37 patents in the U.S., according to KU Innovation and Collaboration's annual report.
The number of patents received is more than double that of the previous year. And the number of licensing agreements the university has entered into with companies to sell its technology has expanded rapidly in recent years as well, from 60 in 2011, to 65 in 2012 and 78 in 2013.
The federal Bayh-Dole Act, passed in 1980, made it possible for individual universities to own the patent rights to technology and ideas generated by faculty using federal funds for research. At KU and most other major research universities, faculty give the university patent rights for anything they invent in the course of their work as part of their employment agreement.
Julie Goonewardene, associate vice chancellor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at KU, said she has noticed rising interest among faculty in developing technology, research and processes that can be applied commercially.
"Faculty like seeing their discoveries and inventions used. That's important to them," she said.
Professors and researchers are accustomed to seeing their work printed in journals, "but it's much more of a thrill to see your discovery used to improve and, in some cases, save somebody's life," Goonewardene said. "It's an emotionally gratifying thing to do."
Gratifying perhaps, but not cheap. At a bare minimum, the university pays $20,000 to turn an idea into a patent, and those are just the legal fees, which Goonewardene says the university vigorously negotiates. Along with the basic cost of filing a patent, the university spends money, time and other resources gathering market information as well as talking to experts and companies to see if there is commercial need and interest in an idea.
To help researchers establish the commercial viability of a product, the KU Innovation and Collaboration office has a "proof of concept fund" to support the final stages of research in a product with market potential. This year the fund gave out five $50,000 grants to help bring new technology to the market.
Of course, there is money to be made from the patenting process, too. The university grossed almost $12 million from licensing agreements for the 2013 fiscal year, up from less than $2 million in 2011.
If an idea goes through the patent process and becomes licensed for commercial use, revenues from the license are split three ways between the faculty member, his or her department and KU, Goonewardene said.
While the pharmacy, medical and engineering schools at KU are big patent players, Goonewardene said her office has a "big tent attitude," inviting all faculty to consider how their work could become sellable products. That helps to make KU's portfolio of licensed technology a diverse trove of drugs, devices and complex technology.
KU-owned technologies include everything from cancer treatments, to a tissue slicer (which is just what it sounds like: a device that extracts surgical tissue), to a kite-like hovering platform that can be used for surveillance and rescue missions, to a method meant to help nursing home workers speak more humanely to those in their care.