Your Role in Harvardís Technology Transfer Program
Is Your Discovery An "Invention"?Research at Harvard often yields discoveries of great significance to the academic community. But what are the implications of your work at Harvard for the public at large? Do your findings have the potential to be more broadly applied? The answers to these questions are at the heart of technology transfer at Harvard University - working to bring the excitement and promise of new knowledge to the widest possible audience.
As a University investigator, you need not exert a special effort or change the direction of your research in order to "invent." You need only recognize the potential inventions inherent in your academic achievements. Inventions that can lead to products may occur in any field and encompass many areas. The common denominator is that each of the discoveries has a commercial potential or addresses a market need. One way you can recognize your inventions, therefore, is to consider your academic achievements in the context of commercial utility. However, if you are a typical scientist, your priorities probably lie elsewhere, and it's unlikely you routinely apply a commercial utility "filter" to the results of your work. But we do.
Simply stated, if you've turned up something "new," we're ready to work with you to see if a potential link to industry exists.
The Rewards of Inventorship Are ManyThe translation of ideas into products that benefit the public can certainly bring great personal satisfaction to a researcher. Maximizing the potential of your work and establishing links with industrial counterparts are two other benefits you may enjoy. The practical application of your research in developing products will foster the widest possible recognition of your research efforts and, in some cases, may also prove the underlying scientific hypotheses. In addition to the intellectual exchange, collaboration with industrial partners may also attract financial sponsorship of your research.
Harvard usually receives monetary compensation in the form of license fees or royalty payments in return for the transfer of commercial rights to an invention. The University shares this income with you, providing a very practical benefit to your inventive work. These revenues can also be a welcome source of funding for your laboratory and department.
The economy benefits as well. In over a decade, licensing of University inventions has resulted in the introduction of hundreds of new products in numerous markets and in the creation of many new companies. An annual industry-wide survey reported the formation of over 350 companies from licensing of technology at US universities. At Harvard alone, several dozen companies based on University technology have been launched since 1980.
Why Protect Your Invention?It has been said that patents are the instruments of partnership between science and the economy. Obviously, a for-profit company's decision to license university technology is purely a business decision; thus, a strong economic incentive must be present. In many cases, patents can provide that incentive. Patents give Harvard, to which you will have assigned your invention, the right to "exclude others from practicing the invention" for a period of 20 years from the patent application's filing date.
Twenty years may seem a long time to have a monopoly, but long after you have demonstrated that your invention works, hundreds of thousands of dollars in product testing and development, production engineering and marketing still may be required before a product will be available to the public. A period of exclusivity presents a barrier to entry to other companies, allowing the firm that developed the invention sufficient time to recoup its investment.
The broad protection provided by patents is quite effective for most concepts and ideas, but may not be possible or suitable for all "inventions." Copyright or trademark protection may be a better choice for many. In fact, some inventions may not require any formal protection, but may be licensed as a tangible research material - for example, biological materials.
How Does Technology Transfer Work Within an Academic Environment?In 1980, Congress passed landmark legislation known as the Bayh-Dole Act. This law permitted universities to take title to all inventions and discoveries arising from federally-funded research. Bayh-Dole also required universities to make every effort to ensure that these inventions were brought into public use as soon as practicable. Universities have found that, in most cases, the most efficient way to meet this latter requirement is by having commercial firms develop, manufacture and distribute products based on its researchers' discoveries.
But this increasingly close proximity to industry can pose special problems for academic institutions. The open intellectual climate of a university can, at times, be at odds with a company's goals - which usually take a more focused, protective attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge leading to intellectual property. Each university needs to be unequivocal in stating its position when such conflicts arise.
Harvard recognizes the importance and benefits of technology transfer and encourages scientifically-productive research collaborations between its scientists and for-profit companies. But the maintenance of academic freedoms - scientific integrity, pursuit of knowledge and the open exchange of ideas and information - remain the first priority. To ensure that these standards are upheld during the various interactions between you and industry, the University has developed guidelines, including the "Statement of Policy in Regard to Inventions, Patents and Copyrights," and the policies regarding "Conflicts of Interest and Commitment" and "Guidelines for Industry Sponsored Research Agreements." Copies of these references are available on the Policies page.
Misperceptions AboundDespite a growing recognition of the importance of university technology transfer to both academic institutions and industry, several misperceptions persist within the academic community regarding the process.
Notable among these is the notion that basic research cannot lead to inventions. The opposite appears to be true. From 1978 to the present, Harvard's technology transfer program has enjoyed enthusiastic response from industry, leading to the commercialization of numerous University inventions. In 1999 alone, four new products based on Harvard discoveries were introduced into the market by University licensees.
Another myth is that participation in the protection and commercialization of intellectual property is time-consuming and will take valuable time away from academic activities. Faculty inventors who have been through the process might tell you a different story. Although the inventor plays a key role in the preparation of a patent application, all other activities - including continued management of patent prosecution and licensing - are handled by the University.
There is also the fear that when an academic researcher obtains a patent, it prevents his or her peers from doing academic research on the same matter. This isn't true. Generally speaking, academic research on a given subject - even if the idea has been patented by another person - does not lead to "patent infringement" litigation. The latter occurs when a private individual or a for-profit firm uses a patented idea with commercial intent (including research) whether the patent had its roots in academia or otherwise.
An additional concern among some academicians is that patenting discoveries creates an atmosphere of secrecy such that researchers are under pressure not to share information with their peers. We assure you otherwise: in situations where publishing and patenting conflict, Harvard works to meet its patent requirements without interfering with the inventor's freedom to discuss and publish research results. Since public disclosure of a new discovery via written or oral presentation also jeopardizes foreign patent rights, our Offices are prepared to move quickly to review the planned disclosure while laying the groundwork for the associated patent application.
OTD: Resources in Building Relationships With IndustryHarvard's Office of Technology Development (OTD) works to transfer University technology to the commercial sector for development of products.
Our Offices are staffed by licensing professionals who are both generalists in technology management, and specialists in specific fields of research. We exercise full control over the technology transfer process, including seeking appropriate protection for intellectual property, managing the licensing process, and collecting and distributing associated fees and royalties. Not insignificantly, all legal expenses associated with patent filing and prosecution, and their administration, are borne by our Offices.
For the most recent performance statistics, including invention disclosures received, patent applications filed, license agreements negotiated with industry, and royalties collected/distributed, see the Productivity Highlights.
We are in daily touch with industry representatives on behalf of Harvard inventors. Most of us have worked in industry, understand the environment, and have valuable contacts there. Because of this experience, we can serve as a resource to you in managing issues that may arise in academic-industrial relationships, including those surrounding conflicts of interest.
Please Contact UsThe process of technology transfer starts with you. To participate, first ask yourself the question: Have I developed something, or am I working on something that might have wider use or industrial application?
If the answer is "yes," or even if you're not sure, contact either of our Offices. Or, if you would simply like to obtain further details on any aspect of technology transfer, please contact us.
The point is to involve us early in the game. The sooner you do, the smoother the process will go, and greater the likelihood that your invention will be developed to its fullest potential.