UA patents generate revenue, prestige

UA Optical Sciences works to make sci-fi technology a reality

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The UA raked in about $1 million in patents and other developments last year, sustaining the institution’s 20-year trend of successful inventions.

While original patents, copyrights and inventions are developed by many of the UA’s colleges, much of the growth has been seen in research-intensive areas like the College of Optical Sciences and other units within the College of Science. Copyright has also become prominent in the James E. Rogers College of Law, according to Patrick Jones, director of the UA’s Office of Technology Transfer.

Overall, the university has 170 active U.S. patents, 170 applications that are in the process of becoming patents and 90 provisional patents, which last for one year and serve as quick, “placeholder” patents to allow for further evaluation before an invention becomes patented. The College of Optical Sciences filed 52 of those provisional patents last year, and the college also passed seven patents the same year, a process that takes about three to 10 years.

Several developments in the College of Optical Sciences are currently under production, and many have already made their way into the real-world market, according to Jim Wyant, the college’s dean. The college’s most profitable advancement — which has resulted in the evolution of contact lens manufacturing — has been licensed to manufacturers in the field.

“There are a lot of different types of designs of contact lenses, and when you’re manufacturing them, it’s important that they meet the specs that they are manufactured to,” Wyant said. “Some of our people have come up with very good ways of essentially testing the contact lenses really fast and easy.”

Further details of these developments, including exactly how profitable they have been and which companies have the licenses to use them, remain confidential.

The college’s patents have also seen success in medical imaging, camera technology and even holographic displays. Under development is the world’s first holographic 3-D display, which will implement “telepresence,” or the transferring of someone’s 3-D image. The concept has been seen in a number of science fiction films, but is not yet realized.

The college’s innovative success also resulted in the inception of startup companies, including NP Photonics, a private company that manufactures products for the fiber optics industry formed by Nasser Peyghambarian, chair of Optical Sciences’ photonics and lasers department. Peyghambarian’s company, formed in 1998, uses its products in a number of different fields.

“These products are very tiny fiber lasers that are being used for oil and gas exploration, perimeter security and for any other application that requires a very small and stable laser,” Peyghambarian said.

NP Photonics has since received more than $32 million in capital investment funding, but began with research conducted at the university 13 years ago. The company still manufactures its products on campus.

While the College of Optical Sciences has maintained a strong presence in university innovation, the UA Cancer Center has also made significant progress of its own, namely in the area of cancer prevention and the development of new cancer drugs.

“The Cancer Center has traditionally been one that is involved in drug development, both at the pre-clinical level and also at the clinical level,” said Bob Dorr, a pharmacology professor. “Several pivotal studies that got new cancer drugs approved were spearheaded by investigators here.”

According to Dorr, Cancer Center Director Dr. David Alberts led a study that helped develop carboplatin, an anti-cancer agent that is now used as the standard treatment for lung and ovarian cancer. Carboplatin has become the replacement for a previous agent that was much more toxic.

Dorr said that the significance of the university’s drug development area lies in the strength of the department.

“There’s a lot of work going on at the U of A in designing these targeted drugs,” he said. “We’ve got a terrific chemistry group, and I mean that all-inclusively of both the College of Pharmacy and the College of Science on the main campus. That strength in chemistry has allowed us to start to move into this molecularly-targeted drug area.”

As for patents and innovative developments in general, Amy Phillips, the College of Optical Sciences technology transfer license specialist, said that having this type of intellectual property on campus adds to the university’s reputation as a research institution.

“It makes it a more exciting institution to belong to when you know that your work could actually help somebody,” Phillips said.

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(12/31/69 5:00pm)

Unfortunately patents are direct opposition to the purpose of a land grant university.

The intended purpose of a land grant institution is making the fruits of publicly sustained R&D available to the public at large.

When the UA got started it’s creations and research, such as improvements in seed stock and varieties, were made available to farmers and others without second thought.

Now the UA is bragging about locking its publicly supported and administered developments in private hands.

This saddens me.

Even if you think it’s appropriate for a land grant institution to engage in patent licensing, most research on the licensing of patents by universities shows that academic institutions do a poor job of developing optimized revenue streams from patent portfolios.

Likewise, research has shown that patents have little connection to innovation, and in fact, are becoming a fall-back and crutch for those who fail to innovate.

Disappointing all round.

Talking this sort of thing up is something I think all alumni should find shameful.

Ron Berkley
(12/31/69 5:00pm)

I’ve heard it said, “capitalism without failure is like religion without t sin.” Neither is perfect and yet, the world is better off with both. This university we call Arizona started out of the sand, deemed not as good as the Harvard’s & Yale’s of the world. Today, The University of Arizona has risen to be one of the best universities in the world. Our school has taken advantage of the free-market enterprise and it is indeed, the free-market place that advances this great university. Whether it be advances in science or the arts or a tally of patients, without this freedom that The University of Arizona have enjoyed, our school would be dictated to by the Harvard’s and the Yale’s of the world to its ‘little place in the sand.

(12/31/69 5:00pm)

I agree with the above comment. The purpose of publicly supported development of knowledge is for the advancement of the good of the public, not the advancement of a few stockholders.
As a physician, I have avoided ownership in health and pharmaceutical stocks my entire life. I view it as a form of ‘double dipping’and a conflict of interest in our ethical duties as healers.
I realize that money is tight and institutions must scramble for support these days but locking up ideas that could be advanced to the betterment of the public AND the general economy, furthers the trend of putting more dollars in fewer pockets.
This tactic also narrows the number of minds working on medical and technical problems and cannot help but delay solutions that would come to fruition much more quickly in a collaborative atmosphere.

Huw Jones
(12/31/69 5:00pm)

Such high-minded and altruistic goals voiced in the previous anonymous posting reveal how little is truly understand about university research and commercial interests. In 1980, Senators Bob Dole and Birch Bayh created legislation that gave universities the incentive to own technologies incubated within their four walls on government largesse. This gave rise to the ubiquitous technology transfer functions in most major universities. Although it is true that most of these functions are not big winners in terms of revenue generation, they do provide an economic boost due to the formation of spin-outs and licensing to those small companies. The Kaufmann Foundation recently published it’s study of job creation in this country, and reported that net job creation has been overwhelmingly from small companies, not large ones. Giving away the fruits of such research and not patenting would reduce or even eliminate the private investments that support creation of the spin-outs because investors want some defensible competitive advantage to anchor a new company. The comment that patents have little connection to innovation is nonsensical, as innovation does not come from patents, but patents from innovation. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” That basic quid pro quo has anchored this country’s incentives for new ideas over 200 years, and to disdain it is to ignore a central driver of our economy, and future.