This is a guest post by Bill Barnett, Director of Science Community Tools (Research Technologies) at Indiana University (see full bio below).
We are all aware of the challenges of taking inventions developed in academia or practical settings and moving them to products and services that benefit people. In the world of medical inventions, we’re talking about improving human health. It is not that both inventors and industry don’t do their job marvelously. The job of inventors who are academics or clinicians is to make discoveries and help patients, and some of these efforts result in discoveries that could become products and services. That is exciting and valuable but taking the next step is something researchers or clinicians usually don’t know how to do and, in some cases, have been doing wrong. This is important – there is a lot of great research going on and a lot of great discoveries are being made. If we can move them quickly to products we can have a real impact on health! Commercializing discoveries is difficult. But a new service, i2iconnect.org, can help bridge the gap between inventors and the industry resources needed to bring inventions to patients.
Since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities to profit from publicly-funded research, many universities have established technology transfer offices whose responsibility is to move these discoveries into products and services. There are two typical paths for this: Create a startup or license the discovery to a company. There has been a lot of attention to startups, and they are a feature of many state or local entrepreneurial strategies. Due to the number and cost of mandatory business prerequisites, starting a new venture can be a tough row to hoe. Academics or clinicians are asked to develop a prototype product, a business model, raise funds, and build a business – a tough transition for someone from another world who is learning as they go. Many medical entrepreneurs have been successful and sometimes a new corporation is the right answer, but the failure rate is high – which means the potential health benefits are not reaching the public. And with the diminished economy, finding funding for these ventures has become more difficult.
I’m going to focus this message on licensing. Licensing is a lower cost, faster, and lower risk strategy, but with admittedly lower potential profits since the licensor takes on the cost of product development – but it typically has an overall higher rate of return. A licensing partner is typically a company that is already in the business of making and selling devices, drugs or health information technology (HIT) solutions (for example – though this need not be limited to healthcare!). If you are a clinician or researcher and want to move your discovery into a product and reap some rewards but still remain what you are, what’s not to like about this strategy?
But there are hurdles there too. There are over 5,500 pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the country. How do you find the right company to license your product? Universities have employed tech transfer staff to develop relationships and find buyers for their disclosures, but their rolodexes are based on relationships and are typically pretty small – certainly nowhere near 5,500! With medical product companies becoming more and more specialized, it is even more difficult to find the right company that is best positioned to develop your discovery. Recently, universities have turned to putting disclosures (intellectual property declarations) online in compendia that companies can search to find matches. There are several of these. Sounds good, but these sites yield few partnerships for the following reasons. First, industry is not actively looking for inventions, so these lists are not really used by companies. Second, no university is going to put their hot, new disclosures for everyone to see – so these disclosures tend to be ‘old and cold’ and not worth very much. Finally, inventions listed on these sites are typically not searchable according to type of technology, disease or medical specialty. Finding the right match is like seeing a needle in the proverbial haystack. The healthcare field is highly competitive and rapidly changing. Most discoveries that are 90 days old are already getting long enough in the tooth that their competitive advantage has diminished – much less 6 month-old listings! So there is a basic conundrum in this strategy – no one is going to publicly post their most valuable assets in hopes it will be found by a licensing partner before being found by a competitor – and the clock is ticking!
What are our options? How can we retain confidentiality, move quickly, and find the right partner among the thousands of companies out there in a rapidly specializing industry?
The silent (so far) players in all this are the industry licensing agents. They know their companies’ portfolios (and this is generally not secret, since market niches are well known) and have the ability to assess, with their product development and leadership teams, the potential of a discovery to be turned into something useful. So here’s a thought. Instead of putting up old disclosures or rehashing our rolodexes, what if we had a compendium of corporate licensing agents, listed with their contact information so you can contact them directly, their disease and product priorities, and descriptions of what products they were looking for? Not only would it help identify potential partners for inventors, but it would also provide a guide to potential directions inventors could take their research (another complaint of industry – researchers aren’t working on the right things!). Certainly, companies are acutely aware of current gaps and opportunities for new products and services and this would be a great guide for researchers.
There actually is such a service, developed at Indiana University, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and provided for free. i2iconnect.org lists industry licensing agents with their contact information and disease and specialty foci. It is simple to search a topic without giving away any IP, and the listing is orders of magnitude larger than a personal rolodex. Companies are not interested in “hey, you are a medical device manufacturer, I have developed a new biocoating for stents” if the company is not in the stent business, but would be interested in “I saw that you specialize in stent biocoatings and I have an invention that could improve drug release over time in your stents”. I’m sure inventors (or tech transfer officers who hundreds of disclosures to work through) would rather have a list of 2 or 3 promising prospects than cold-calling companies or going back to the same contacts time after time. Each licensing agent who registers can list by industry standard terms for specialties and diseases as well as provide descriptions of their product development portfolios. Contacts are ranked by the community to avoid unscrupulous behavior, and one can subscribe to a RSS feed to keep track of updates.
So, there is hope out there for inventors or tech transfer officers who have potentially great ideas and need to quickly find partners that can turn their discoveries into products. What’s not to like?
[about_box image=”http://thebenchapp.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Bill-Barnett-80.png”]William Barnett is an Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Cybersecurity Research in addition to being Senior Manager for the Life Sciences for IU’s Research Technologies division. Barnett also serves as Director of Information Architectures for the Indiana Clinical and Translational Science Institute and Director of the Advanced IT Core for the IU School of Medicine. In addition to his experience in information technologies for the life sciences, Barnett also has experience in digital libraries, multimedia technologies and has worked in both museum and nonprofit environments. Before coming to IU, Barnett was Deputy Director of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum in California and Vice President and CIO at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Barnett holds degrees from the College of William and Mary, and Boston University.[/about_box]