But while that likely makes Taxol the single biggest moneymaker of all active university patents, it’s got a rival for the crown. In April, the University of Rochester won what may well turn out to be the greatest prize of all: patent rights that cover all medical uses of Cox-2 inhibitors, or “super-aspirins,” which last year beat Viagra’s record as the fastest-selling new drug in history. When TR went to press, the school was suing Searle to block sales of the drug and was moving to negotiate licensing deals with that company and other manufacturers that could easily vault the Cox-2 inhibitors to the top of the heap.
Winners like these are manna for a technology transfer office, but they’re not something a university can count on. So rather than betting on blockbusters, schools are increasingly seeking inventive ways to milk the most out of their bread-and-butter portfolios.
Take Pennsylvania State University, which currently ranks 44th in licensing income. “We are aggressively moving forward to hopefully change our success rate at capitalizing on our technology,” says Gary Weber, director of technology transfer. Those efforts include building incubator space in the university’s research park, courting venture capital as never before and signing what Weber terms “creative” equity deals.
In one striking example, Penn State bundled together three previously distinct pieces of agricultural intellectual property: a drug-delivery technology for controlling animal fertility, a chicken feed product Weber calls “poultry’s Last Supper,” which reduces E. coli contamination in slaughtered birds, and a genetic marker for “boar taint,” an odor that can contaminate the pork from male swine.
Licensed separately, none of the inventions was likely to amount to much. But united, they formed the basis of an entire new company, whimsically christened EIEICO by the venture capitalist who funded the endeavor. Penn State took an equity position in the startup.
More and more, Weber and counterparts at other universities are looking for such entrepreneurial opportunities rather than one-shot deals. For one thing, ventures like these provide a vehicle to plow money back into the university to support ongoing development of the technology-and then to get new innovations out to market even faster. In the long run, such a continuous revenue stream-from a variety of small inventions-may outperform a blockbuster patent.