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About 15 years ago, two MIT professors invented a device that could “print” a three-dimensional object directly from a computer design. Similar to an ink-jet printer, the machine sprayed a fluid that bound together layers of powdered material. In 1989, materials scientist Michael Cima, mechanical engineer Emanuel Sachs ’76, SM ’76, PhD ’83, and their MIT colleagues patented the process and began offering licenses on it through the Institute’s Technology Licensing Office.

The first company that licensed the technology uses it to make ceramic shells for casting metal automotive parts. Another creates concept models of products, from toys to architectural designs. Yet another builds machines that can make metal tools and parts directly from computer designs. One company focuses on machines for printing tiny scaffolds that, implanted in the body, encourage bone growth. Another plans to create time-release pills. A sixth company licensed the technology to create small decorative objects, such as Christmas-tree ornaments, and another used the process to make ceramic filters for coal-burning power plants.

Sachs says he and his colleagues hadn’t imagined all the potential uses of their printer when they first filed the patent. “The first application I had in mind was actually the metal-casting one,” he says, “and I had a couple of other ideas about applications, but nothing comparable to what turned out to be realizable.” According to licensing officer Jack Turner, however, the three-dimensional-printing patent’s busy life is typical of MIT inventions. “There are many technologies that arise at MIT that can be used in more than one way.”

Many indeed. The Technology Licensing Office manages more than 600 active patent licenses. The office’s 30 employees also provide researchers with services beyond licensing, from helping them get inventions patented to finding companies to license their work to guiding them through the process of launching a startup. Today, it’s one of the busiest university licensing offices in the country. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2003, the Institute was awarded 127 patents, behind only the entire University of California system and Caltech.

Disclosure is the first step in filing for a patent, and last year, licensing officers met with hundreds of researchers who disclosed 454 inventions. The office filed 238 patent applications and negotiated close to a hundred licenses. Every patent and license helps the office achieve its stated goal: to create products from MIT technology that will ultimately benefit the wider world.


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