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Inventiveness pays at colleges

California's campuses are among the country's most prolific at receiving patents, and that means more income and greater prestige. UC has led nationally for 12 years.

September 12, 2006|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The nicotine patch. Google. The hepatitis B vaccine. Music synthesizer chips. Computerized war games. And a really tasty strawberry.

Those are just a few of the thousands of inventions that were born on the campuses of California, making the state's academic centers among the nation's most productive and, through patents and licensing, well rewarded.

The University of California, Caltech and Stanford ranked first, third and fourth, respectively, last year in the federal government's list of U.S. universities receiving patents. And UC -- all its campuses combined -- has held that top spot for 12 unbroken years.

UC's enormous scale, high-powered faculty and long-running management of federally funded laboratories account for some of that championship status.

But the ranking also reflects the spirit around the state, according to William Tucker, executive director of UC's systemwide Office of Technology Transfer.

"Without slighting our colleagues in the Midwest, it's a very entrepreneurial environment here that's led to the success in California," he said, adding the same could be said for the Boston area and a few other spots around the country. "There is money here. There is opportunity to invest in technologies coming out of universities. And success breeds success."

Jon Dudas, the U.S. undersecretary of Commerce for intellectual property, said California schools are among those that have found "the magical formula" in pursuing inventions and getting them into the market.

Universities such as Stanford and UC, he said, attract top professors who are prolific researchers, later producing more revenue to snag future talent in a creative cycle.

Though big corporations account for the majority of patents, universities traditionally take the longer view and can work without immediate results on projects leading to enormous breakthroughs, Dudas said.

Within the UC system, the medically oriented San Francisco campus holds the most U.S. patents: 800 by mid-2005. Noteworthy and high-earning inventions there include the hepatitis B vaccine and a form of cochlear implant to improve hearing.

UCLA was the launching pad for the nicotine patch and treatments for intracranial aneurysms. To the north, UC Davis was home to the Camarosa strawberry, a popular variety that ships and stores well.

Other campuses' significant inventions include:

* UC Irvine, a skin-cooling device that improves laser treatments.

* UC San Diego, therapy for the painful bladder disease interstitial cystitis.

* UC Berkeley, tests for E. coli contamination in public drinking water.

* UC Santa Barbara, a pump that measures and delivers insulin for diabetics.

The UC system earned $110 million last year in licensing revenue from all its patents, with the on-campus inventors usually receiving about a third of that.

That sounds like big money, but it is a small portion of UC's overall $15-billion annual operating budget, which includes its hospitals.

"It's not significant on the grand scheme, but it is important money to support our mission and take technology to the public," Tucker said.

Stanford got a $336-million windfall over the last two years after Google first offered public shares. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had developed the search engine technology as Stanford graduate students. The school took what seemed to others to be an inauspicious equity share in the obscure start-up as part of a patent licensing agreement.

The rest is Silicon Valley history.

Other top Stanford-born inventions include a form of sound synthesizer chips for music and computers, the Genscan software used in genetic mapping and a monitor that measures blood flow in the heart.

Though the revenue helps, Stanford and other schools are fulfilling a public mission, according to Katharine Ku, director of the university's Office of Technology Licensing.

"We want to bring products to the marketplace. Otherwise, we could have wonderful breakthroughs but they might sit in journals," Ku explained.

Experts say campus-based experimentation got a huge boost in 1980, when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act. That legislation gave universities, small businesses and nonprofits control of their inventions that resulted from research funded by the federal government.

For example, Caltech's federally backed Jet Propulsion Lab has been a fount of innovation.

Among the influential patents from it are an improved global positioning system aiding aviation and agriculture, and pixel sensor technology used in digital cameras.

Other important Caltech inventions include the pioneering DNA sequencer and a new ultra-strong metal called "liquidmetal." A novel chemistry technique, called olefin metathesis, makes it easier and cheaper to create synthetic substances while decreasing the amount of waste material. The work behind it won Caltech professor Bob Grubbs a share of the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

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