Penn brings the fruits of research to market

In groundbreaking research, a Penn psychologist showed how people can build resistance to depression. Now courses aimed at groups like schools, corporations and health-care organizations teach the technique.

With the help of Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer (CTT), Psychology Professor Martin Seligman was able to turn the research behind his best-selling book “Learned Optimism” into training programs for individuals and organizations, offered through Adaptiv Learning Systems, a company formed to market Seligman’s ideas. Other ideas commercialized through CTT have proven useful in a number of fields, including medicine, industrial design, education, veterinary medicine and agriculture.

CTT was established in 1991 to help Penn faculty and staff get their marketable ideas into production quicker. The center built upon earlier efforts in Penn’s Office of Research Administration to take advantage of federal legislation aimed at getting more federally-funded research discoveries into the market.

Lou Berneman, the center’s director and a past president of the Association of University Technology Managers, said, “Prior to 1980, the federal government owned patents [on inventions resulting from government-funded research], and they were not very successful in commercializing them. Since 1980, when [a new law gave] universities a financial interest and local control over the patents, about one-quarter of all discoveries are successfully commercialized.”

Penn’s success rate is similar, according to Berneman. About half of all the technology disclosures CTT gets each year—in fiscal year 2002, the number was 288—result in patent applications, and half of those lead to successful commercialization.

The center does produce revenue for Penn. In fiscal 2002, it generated $9 million in income, $4.1 million more than its operating costs. By law, the revenue generated by licensing agreements or startup companies goes mainly to the University and the inventors. The inventor gets to keep 30 percent of net proceeds from any deal. Penn’s portion of the revenues is plowed back into education and research, thus generating future inventions.

But revenue is not the main reason Penn seeks to commercialize its research. “We are very committed to technology transfer and to practical applications of research, but I see that as more a public good and part of our mission of serving the public than [as] a fantastic source for additional income for the University,” said Neal Nathanson, vice provost for research.

CTT helps advance that mission through the formation of new companies. In the past five fiscal years, CTT has helped create 29 startup ventures, like King of Prussia-based Adaptiv, for marketing ideas developed at Penn. Adaptiv is typical of university-launched companies in that it’s based near the source of the research. Berneman said, “Most of the startups formed by CTT are located in the Philadelphia region.”

But the bulk of the revenue Penn gets from CTT comes from licensing agreements with established companies. In each of the last two fiscal years, CTT negotiated 82 new option or licensing agreements with firms seeking to capitalize on Penn research.

While the bulk of new ideas come to CTT from faculty, staff can also submit ideas for the center to review. Submissions are first reviewed for technical merit and marketability, and then, if they pass these tests and can be successfully protected through patent, copyright or trademark, CTT then goes to work on getting the ideas into the commercial pipeline. The process takes years—“Last year, we licensed technology we’ve been patenting since the 1980s,” Berneman said—and only a tiny fraction of successfully patented ideas achieve real commercial success. But for those few that do, the rewards can be huge.

CTT staff are also strategically placed through joint appointments in schools, centers and departments that conduct significant research, on the lookout for potentially marketable discoveries.

If you have an idea or invention that you think might have commercial potential, the journey to the marketplace begins with a single step—a visit to the CTT Web site at www.upenn.edu/ctt.

Originally published on September 19, 2002