Education

Iowa State, University of Iowa listed among top patent producers

'Revenue is the cherry on top'

Wendy Wintersteen (left), Iowa State University president, speaks with Bruce Harreld, University of Iowa president, before a Board of Regents meeting in Iowa City this past September. (The Gazette)
Wendy Wintersteen (left), Iowa State University president, speaks with Bruce Harreld, University of Iowa president, before a Board of Regents meeting in Iowa City this past September. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa State University and the University of Iowa are being recognized among the top universities in the world to obtain U.S. patents, reflecting the campuses’ increasing emphasis on economic development.

“Our mission is to get university technologies out to benefit society,” said Lisa Lorenzen, president of the ISU Research Foundation. “We take that mission to heart, and the better we do, the more difference we can make in everyone’s lives.”

A side benefit, she said, is the potential for revenue as the higher education landscape shifts and many states pull back support for their public universities, ramping up competition for top students, faculty and staff.

“Revenue is the cherry on top. It’s not the driving force,” Lorenzen said. “The main mission is to get technologies in the hands of people who can go and do good things with them.”

Iowa State’s No. 69 ranking on the “Top 100 worldwide universities granted U.S. utility patents” in 2018 is its highest ever on the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association publication. Its 34 granted U.S. patents tie with Wake Forest and Florida State universities.

Iowa State ranked No. 83 in 2017, with 32 patents; No. 70 in 2014; and No. 86 in 2013. It was not ranked in 2016 or 2015.

The No. 79 for UI for 2018 marks its inaugural appearance on the top 100 list, according to a UI spokesman Tom Snee, noting the recognition shows research efforts are paying off.

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Its 31 patents in the 2018 calendar year ties it with National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan and the University of Nebraska.

UI and ISU have made economic development a priority in recent years — as both strive to bring their campuses’ ideas to the world. And Lorenzen said research and innovation that goes unprotected is less likely to get picked up and used commercially.

“If you don’t protect it, it’s less likely to have an impact,” she said. “And that, to me, is the most important part.”

Patents also hold the potential for revenue, which is becoming increasingly sparse amid a shifting higher education landscape. Lawmakers in Iowa in recent years have slashed appropriations to the regent universities by tens of millions, even as in they’ve worked to amend those cuts with modest increases last two Legislative sessions.

In hopes of bolstering its economic development, the University of Iowa last year reshaped what had been its office dedicated to research and economic development by branching off the economic development piece and appointing Jon Darsee as its first chief innovation officer.

Darsee, a consultant with experience developing medical devices and guiding health care start-ups, is charged with leading UI research commercialization and economic development activities — including its various innovation centers such as UI Ventures, Protostudios and the UI Research Park.

“Economic development is a natural outgrowth of research but requires different tools and skills,” UI President Bruce Harreld said upon Darsee’s appointment in October. “This realignment will allow us to better use the expansive technology and innovation capabilities that have been built up in recent years to move the university’s research from ideas to impact.”

The UI in April named J. Martin Scholtz, executive associate vice president for research at Texas A&M University, as its new vice president for research. He begins June 28.

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The new top 100 report made public this week is based on calendar-year data obtained from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Internal reports out of both Iowa State and the UI likewise show patent, disclosure and licensing activity has been ramping up in recent years.

Iowa State’s report, which is derived from fiscal year data, shows total disclosures — when faculty share their ideas with the research foundation — have surged from 113 in fiscal 2014 to 145 in 2018. Iowa State filed 134 patent applications in fiscal 2018, compared with 67 in 2014.

The UI’s patent applications filed and issued, along with its invention disclosures, have remained mostly steady, ebbing and flowing from year to year.

Lorenzen told The Gazette those disclosure numbers — representing faculty who present their ideas to the research foundation — are the key figures to drive up, as the process works like a funnel.

If 100 ideas are submitted, she said, about a third receive patents. Of that third, only a fraction become licensed — and maybe three make money.

“So for every 100 ideas, you only get three that make money,” she said. “And it takes 10 years to get to that point. But if you get 200 ideas, you have six chances to make money, rather than three.”

Iowa State has reported a 40 percent increase in the flow of ideas being disclosed.

“We are trying to do anything we can to get face to face with researchers,” Lorenzen said. “You would be surprised how many don’t realize they have good ideas.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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