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Research Labs Get More Patents, Start-Ups Level Off

Test tubes in a lab

(Martin Lopez, Pexels)

18 Feb. 2020. A survey of U.S. universities and research institutes shows more patents were awarded to their labs in 2018, while new start-ups stayed the same from 2017. Findings were released yesterday from the annual survey conducted by AUTM, the association of American technology transfer managers, the people at research universities and institutes responsible for intellectual property and commercialization.

AUTM conducts the survey to document the activity and contributions of technology transfer offices. Respondents reported receiving 7,625 patents for their research discoveries from U.S. authorities in the 2018 academic year, a record number for the AUTM survey. While the number of provisional patents filed — in effect, an intent to file a patent — has remained relatively stable, between 10,000 and 12,000 since 2013, the number of invention disclosures indicating a potential intellectual property, has risen slowly over the years to more than 26,200 in 2018. This suggests at least a slowly growing pool of discoveries for patents at U.S. research institutions.

The number of new companies formed from discoveries at U.S. research institutions remained at 1,080 in 2018, the same number reported the year before, translating to three businesses formed every day of the year. That number, however, is 19 percent higher than five years earlier. In addition, the number of university-based start-ups still in business grew to 6,518, an increase of 39 percent from 2014. Moreover, seven in 10 university-based start-ups (69%) are formed in the same state as the research institution.

The findings show technology transfer offices are using more non-exclusive licenses, making research discoveries available to more companies. Respondents reported more than 5,400 non-exclusive licenses for university technologies in 2018, a sharp increase from about 4,200 in the two previous years. Exclusive licenses remained between 2,000 and 2,200 per year since 2014. Licensees of any kind were small businesses in more than half (57%) of the cases, far exceeding both large companies and start-ups.

In the 2018 academic year, survey respondents say their institutions received $71.7 billion in research funding, a 5 percent increase over 2017. More than half of that amount, $41.2 billion or 58 percent, came from federal sources, while industry provided 7 percent of the total research funds, and the remaining 35 percent came from other sources. Those other sources, such as private foundations and state or local governments, are becoming more vital to research institutions, since those funds have grown by a quarter since 2014.

The federal share of the total is slowly shrinking, however, from 60 percent in 2014 to about 58 percent in 2018. “We need our legislators and policymakers,” says Richard Chylla, AUTM’s chair in an organization statement, “to continue providing a reliable framework composed of both strong research funding and reliable intellectual property laws, to efficiently move ideas to the marketplace and give investors the confidence to back entrepreneurs.”

While patents, invention disclosures, and licenses are on the rise, the average technology transfer office is shrinking. The number of full-time equivalent staff at tech transfer offices is down 1.6 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year. Nonetheless, say the respondents, their offices executed 10 percent more licenses and options in 2018 than in 2017.

AUTM sent the survey questionnaire to 312 research institutions in the U.S., including universities, research institutes, and hospitals. Of these institutions, 198 or 64 percent responded.

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