You keep the royalties on IP, Sydney institution tells companies

‘Commercial entanglements’ a deadweight on prosperity, Australian university insists

January 30, 2020
Source: Getty

An Australian university has vowed not to claim intellectual property rights on its joint research with industry partners amid an emerging view that the costs of commercialisation outweigh the benefits.

The University of Technology Sydney has decided that its earnings from industry partnerships will be limited to contracts for the initial research.

“We provide the product to the group, and we are not attached to it in any financial way,” said Michael Blumenstein, associate dean of engineering and information technology. “This is quite a unique position for a university to take, but if you help individual parts of the economy, the whole economy benefits.”

Professor Blumenstein said the approach targeted small and medium-sized enterprises, which collectively produced more than half of Australia’s gross domestic product. Many were constrained from innovating because they lacked cash reserves and in-house research capabilities.

“We have come to the conclusion that we need to step in and help,” he said. “We have to cover the costs of the research itself, but we want them to be free of commercial entanglements. We don’t want to complicate arrangements for companies to prosper.”

His words reflect a widespread view that commercialisation efforts can hamper universities, with the cost of enforcing IP exceeding the gains. Some commentators say universities would be better off simply publishing their research results and forgetting about royalties.

While IP advocates point to blockbuster innovations such as the University of Queensland's Gardasil vaccine and the University of Florida’s invention of the Gatorade sports drink, skeptics say such commercial successes are few and far between.

UTS and the other members of the Australian Technology Network group of universities subscribe to IP principles signed off in 2016, which aimed to boost collaboration. They include a commitment to encourage industry partners “to own and take the lead in commercialisation of IP generated from industry-funded research when they are best placed to do so”.

UTS also subscribes to the “Easy Access IP” model of licensing, in effect gifting companies the rights to the university’s discoveries unless they have significant commercial value and a clear route to market. UNSW Sydney, Western Sydney and Edith Cowan universities have also adopted the model, which was pioneered by the University of Glasgow a decade ago.

Former University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Mary O’Kane said the UTS approach was “interesting and clever”. She criticised universities’ “rigid” views on IP ownership. “It’s time to rethink it,” said Professor O’Kane, who was also New South Wales’ chief scientist.

“In the 1988 higher education reforms, everyone thought the money would come from IP. Nobody guessed it was going to come from foreign students.”

But Professor O’Kane admitted that she had “softened my view somewhat” since her days as a vice-chancellor. “It should always be what’s going to work well,” she said.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said that although commercialisation might not work for less research-intensive universities, it was “very much part of our core business model” – particularly for Sydney, Melbourne, Monash and Queensland universities, the last being the developer of the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine.

“They’ve been getting returns on Gardasil for a couple of decades, and they’ve been able to reinvest them into the commercialisation of other research. They’ve got the model up and running simply because they’ve been around long enough to do it,” Ms Thomson said.

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