Industry Support Boosts Chances of Tech Commercialization, Study Indicates

March 20, 2014

Corporate-sponsored research resulted in licenses and patents much more frequently than federally sponsored projects at the campuses of the University of California system between 1990 and 2010, according to findings published in Nature. While federally funded research produced licenses in 22 percent of cases, 29 percent of industry-supported projects led to licenses. Federally supported projects led to licenses 26 percent of the time, while corporate research did so in 29 percent of cases.  Corporate sponsorship also led to more citations in future patents. This was true across technology fields.

Authors Brian D. Wright, Kyriakos Drivas, Zhen Lei and Stephen A. Merrill found that inventions with both types of support were even more likely to commercialize technologies. While the authors anticipated that corporations were more likely to fund applied research that could be quickly brought to market, they also hypothesized that industry research would more often lead to discoveries that were locked down with exclusive licenses or be so narrow as to limit their number of future citations. The latter two predictions turned out to be false.

Though the study is restricted to the University of California system, these campuses accounted for 9 percent of total U.S. academic research expenditure during the period of the study. The system includes nine campuses and three national laboratories.

The researchers caution that the results could be interpreted in a number of ways. Private businesses are becoming an increasingly important source of research funding, and many have warned that these collaborations could result in universities narrowing their mission and becoming simple subsidiary research laboratories for the private sector (see the related Digest Useful Stats article for FY12 R&D expenditures by source). Wright, et. al, suggest that these concerns do not appear to be borne out by the experience of the University of California. Instead, corporate sponsorship seems to be a viable alternative in funding research that leads to technological progress and entrepreneurship.

Others, however, observe that even in the model depicted by the authors in the present study, corporate sponsorship appears to shift focus away from basic science, in favor of more commercializable applied research. While this produces impressive tech transfer numbers in the short term, it could contribute to a long-term decline in national competitiveness .

The authors note that, at a minimum, the findings should allay some of the fears that universities and policymakers have about universities abandoning their role as generators of public knowledge and new small business. Read the article…

Californiahigher ed, commercialization