Summer in the City–time to think about IP

Summer Sunset, Key Bridge

I took the photo on the Virginia side of the Key Bridge after dinner at the Cosmos Club. The principle discussion topic was whether the economy is an unmitigated disaster or just bad. The consensus was that might be the former.

Which brings me to the topic of intellectual property in the context of academic research…

A few institutions account for the vast majority of the patent licensing revenue brought into universities here in the United States. But for those institutions, that revenue can represent a terrific supplementary stream acting as a buffer against the vagaries of the economic climate. Ideally, revenue from patent licenses can fund scholarships, research and other central missions of the university.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s alumni research foundation (WARF) is an excellent example of this. WARF has, over its history, returned some $1.25B to the Madison Campus while, at the same time building up an endowment of about $2B. That’s serious money.

The problem is that WARF is an outlier. For most institutions, the pursuit and licensing of intellectual property is a loss-leader. Theoretically, it should make money, but in practice, it seems not to work very well. So at one level, the question then is to learn from what WARF did right at Madison. But at another level, we want to understand what factors are driving growth globally in the IP arena and then position ourselves to optimally advantage our institution with respect to those factors.

One thing that’s certainly true. Without strong laws protecting intellectual property, even WARF would not be successful. Institutions of higher education can only create real licensing revenue streams if they can stop infringement. Strong IP laws protect faculty inventors, but they also protect the robustness of an institution as it navigates the choppy waters of today’s economic news.

I’ll continue thinking about university IP in future posts.