Penn -- like universities across the country -- is helping more faculty move ideas from the lab to the marketplace through a process called technology transfer. But, some caution that these industry-academy collaborations may compromise publishing and research.
THIS IS ACADEMIA here," says Dr. Louis Berneman, taking a pencil and quickly sketching an oval on a scrap sheet of paper. "And this is industry here." He draws another oval and looks up from his desk. "Academia is interested in knowledge for knowledge's sake. And industry is interested in knowledge for profit's sake. Academia is interested in open discourse and the free exchange of ideas. Industry is interested in restricted discourse and secrets."
Given the gulf separating those two, it's hard to believe that there could be any common ground between them. But in fact, if you look closer at Berneman's ovals, you see that they actually overlap. Pointing to their intersection, Berneman -- managing director of Penn's Center for Technology Transfer (CTT) -- says, "We're both interested in new and better products for people that will save lives and reduce suffering and make the country more competitive."
Those two worlds come together in CTT's office at 3700 Market Street, where Berneman and his staff help to launch new businesses, negotiate industry-sponsored research agreements, shepherd inventions through the patent process, and play matchmaker between companies and Penn's innovations.
Ever since Benjamin Franklin, in his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, envisioned the University as a place where students would be taught things both "ornamental" and "practical," scientific advances have been part of the history of Penn -- from the Rittenhouse Orrery to Eadweard Muybridge's motion-picture studies to, of course, the invention of ENIAC, which ushered in the Information Age, but never made a dime for the University. What is different now, however, is the degree to which ideas are being moved from the university laboratory into the marketplace -- a process known as technology transfer.
It's a burgeoning field. From the 1993 fiscal year to 1997, the number of invention disclosures made to CTT by Penn faculty has risen from 119 to 173; material transfer agreements arranged, from 123 to 425; commercial licenses negotiated, from 8 to 37; and patents issued, from 28 to 54. With a new leader at its helm and a dramatic reorganization completed in 1996, CTT has also transformed what was once a $1.2 million deficit to what will be a $5 million surplus in fiscal 1998.
But even with the recent growth at CTT, Penn is still "playing catch up" to many of its peer research institutions, which Berneman concedes have been more successful at tech transfer. "They've been at it much longer. They've been under consistent management longer. Those universities made a significantly greater commitment to technology transfer earlier than we did." For example, Columbia University last year generated more than $60 million in income from technology transfer; Stanford, $50 million; MIT, $20 million; and Harvard, $16 million. Penn, in contrast, brought in about $4 million, slightly less than its expenses. Of course, universities engage in tech transfer not only to generate income for research, but to help reward, retain, and recruit faculty; to generate closer ties to industry; to spur economic growth; and to move research results from the laboratory to the marketplace for the public benefit.
Take the research of Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, Gr'67, for example. The renowned psychology professor was fielding daily pleas for help from companies and people all over the world who knew of his studies and bestselling books on learned helplessness and learned optimism. Seligman was also thinking about seeking the presidency of the American Psychological Association. How, he wondered, could he disseminate his programs on a wider scale, continue his research, and pursue the top leadership post in his profession?
Seligman says he mentioned his quandary to then-provost, Dr. Stanley Chodorow, who replied, "We've now got this luminary, Lou Berneman, at the Center for Technology Transfer. Let me put you in touch with him to see if he can find a way to do this." Berneman convinced Seligman to let him put together a business plan. And last fall, with $2.25 million from investors, Learned Optimism Corp. (now Basis Learning) was born in Blue Bell, Pa. Its product -- a therapeutic "inoculation" against depression.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 3/17/98