When it comes to patents, Columbia is the big man across campuses.
According to the University, patent-related deals pulled in more than $230 million in the 2006 fiscal year, more than almost any other university earned on such deals. The University has made patent-building one of its most signifcant endeavors, focusing on high-powered discoveries and pushing scientific research toward lucrative investment.
Patenting is overseen by the Science and Technology Ventures office, which was started in 1982. Today, the STV, led by Dr. Michael Cleare, also facilitates industry contracts and product development in addition to shepherding a flock of startups and publicly traded partners. Its power extends over both the Medical Center and the Morningside campus.
The STV office stands out among its peers at major universities. Dr. Bhaven Sampat, an economist at the Law School and a specialist in the interaction between academic patent offices and industry who worked for STV during his undergrad years at Columbia, said that such a large revenue from tech transfer is not common.
"Columbia is an outlier. It's probably the major outlier," he said.
In light of this, other institutions have taken a cue; the Crimson reported in November 2004 that after Harvard made $24 million to Columbia's $178 million in 2003, the university planned to overhaul its own technology transfer office in hopes of cashing in.
THE NEXT BIG THING
Part of the reason behind Columbia's patent superiority is the legacy of the now infamous and somewhat controversial Axel patents. In 1983, four patents were issued to a group of researchers led by Dr. Richard Axel that eventually led to Columbia "owning" several essential technologies related to cotransformation, a process through which cells can be made to produce particular proteins. This proved especially useful during the pharmaceutical boom since the late '90s.
The result was a Nobel Prize for Axel and a series of patents that became the most lucrative in the history of university patents, catapulting Columbia into the highest bracket of universities.
In 2003, three large pharmaceutical companies sued Columbia because they felt the patents had been improperly issued, alleging that Columbia had effectively sought to create a monopoly on the technology. Currently, while three of the four original patents have expired, one is under review from the government.
Long-term results of this early boom have been a pursuit of new ventures and encouragement in finding the next major patent. Most researchers are aware that they are expected to deliver and that an efficient office will foster a variety of projects.
"So far we haven't had a real hit," said Dr. Jeff Koberstein of the chemical engineering department, who has filed many patents through STV. "It's easy to write patents but it's more difficult to get companies to adopt them."
Dr. Henning Schulzrinne, the chair of the computer science department, said, "Most of the income is based on a small number of hits, and it's hard to replicate those because it's like winning the lottery ... There is an increasing realization that you can't just hope that you'll just magically have these blockbusters."
Sampat agreed: "All universities, like Columbia, have been trying to go after 'blockbusters' for the last 25 years now, and generally, they've failed. So they're going for home runs and they're basically swinging and missing."
"Defining a 'hit' is actually harder than one might think," said Orin Herskowitz, chief officer of operations at STV, in an e-mail. "In STV's experience, the true 'blockbuster' products are rare indeed, and often difficult to recognize at the early stage at which they are usually submitted by faculty."
While the Axel is the classic case, another recent Columbia "hit" has been codeveloping new MPEG codec technology for digital imaging and video. In this case, in 1997, Columbia researchers joined other research groups to create what is known as a "patent pool," where a collective group of researchers split the ultimate revenue.
But STV doesn't rest on its laurels. "We have added significant staff recently in order to improve our faculty service levels ... and are deepening our relationships with many of our industry partners," Herskowitz said.
STV isn't the only office that makes sure researchers and industry connect.
Columbia's Center for Advanced Information Management provides supplementary support for some of the more powerful areas of research, including bioinformatics, computational biology, computer science, and biomedical engineering and imaging.
A corollary to STV, CAIM, led by Dr. Edward Shortliffe, the chair of the biomedical informatics department at the Medical Center, makes turning research into profit its main goal.
"We do whatever steps are necessary to help out a faculty member, because that, in effect, helps our cause because it produces another avenue for commercialization of Columbia's technology," said Dr. Vincent Tomaselli, the deputy director of the biomedical informatics department.
This office is funded by the New York State government, which encourages desirable and potentially profitable endeavors and reviews reports from the office twice yearly.
According to Tomaselli, "It doesn't change the way Columbia does business or a faculty member does research, but it changes possibly the direction of certain projects," so that they more clearly reflect the government's intentions.
BEHIND THE LABORATORY SCENES
The STV utilizes an extensive network of officers in various laboratories in order to make connections even before patents are filed.
Traditionally, researchers seek to publish their findings in a scientific journal once they have synthesized a report to the scientific community, which then uses the original findings to advance other projects.
For this reason, the STV requires many researchers to file preliminary reports before releasing their findings. The result is that researchers and the University secure their ultimate rights for the patents or products that may result from the initial research.
In order to discern whether or not research may require such a report, the STV assigns investigative officers to oversee the proceedings of many Columbia laboratories.
Dr. Andrew Laine, of the biomedical engineering and radiology departments, said, "If an investigator feels this is patentable stuff, he can ask for it to be reviewed internally," which may lead to a provisional patent.
"Before you do any public disclosure, before a student does any presentation or writes a paper for publication, we would file an invention disclosure and sit down with STV and whatever attorneys they bring in to figure out whether or not they want to go ahead," said Koberstein. "Sometimes due to the nature of the money, you don't want students involved at all ... If a student is doing research ispart of their thesis, they have to be able to talk about it."
Moreover, companies that have ultimate interest in a project may provide funding in exchange for the ultimate payoff. Laine's laboratory, the Heffner Biomedical Imaging Lab, is currently working on a project that may result in lower-risk PET scan technology. Companies that have shown an early interest include Siemens and Phillips. "[Siemens] funded the project; they, with Phillips, also have what's called a first right of refusal, meaning that before Columbia licenses outside to the general market, that company has the right to exclusive [use of the technology] ... The technology that is developed is co-owned."
BRINGING DISCOVERIES TO THE PUBLIC
The patenting procedure itself, by which Columbia brings a claim to the federal patent office, may take over a year. And while STV facilitates the process, it cannot perform the actual legal procedure. For this, the STV uses highly-trained attorneys to complete the process, many of whom hold advanced degrees in engineering, biochemistry, or other related fields. Many acknowledge that Columbia's location in Manhattan puts more qualified specialists at its disposal.
STV also facilitates commercialization by enabling startup companies to develop.
"STV basically provides contacts to venture capital funding, and they also deal with all licensing and legal issues," said Schulzrinne, who helms a startup based in Canada. "They deal with the not-so-pleasant details."
Many researchers, especially engineers, see interaction with industry as a necessary means to implement their discoveries, many of which have the power to affect the human population at large.
"Most of my students are engineers, and they are expected to do something useful," Koberstein said.
"I think it's a good thing. If you look at history and how long it has taken in the past for technology to reach society...this process has become shorter and shorter," Laine said.
Correction: "Patents Bring in the Cash to Columbia" (Nov. 28) inaccurately attributed Columbia professor Richard Axel's Nobel Prize to his cotransformation research. Axel won the Nobel Prize for his research on the sense of smell.