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Panning for patents

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:24 a.m. August 17, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Tampa biologist Paul Sanberg, with expertise in stem cell research, has spent the better part of two decades on a mission far from his normal objectives.

Sanberg's aim is to alter an institution not known to accept change with any sense of urgency: academia.

The focus is on the University of South Florida, where Sanberg is a vice president of research and innovation. His goal has been to prod professors, and by extension, students, into pursuing research and inventions that have marketable, practical and moneymaking possibilities. “When I first got here,” says Sanberg, who holds 100 health-related patents worldwide, “it was all about getting grants and publish-or-perish.”

Those ideals doubtlessly matter at universities nationwide, including USF. But Sanberg has witnessed a shift the past few years at USF's sprawling Tampa campus.

Although the ultimate prize — to invent, patent and license a product that did what Gatorade did for the University of Florida, hasn't happened yet, Sanberg says USF is closer than ever before. UF College of Medicine professor and kidney diseases specialist Robert Cade, in conjunction with Gators football coaches and players, created the Gatorade formula in 1965. The university has since collected nearly $100 million from the invention.

Sanberg saw some success in his undertaking earlier this summer.

That's when USF, for the second year in a row, made the Intellectual Property Owners Association's top 10 worldwide ranking of universities granted patents. USF was granted 86 patents in 2011, up 3.6% from 83 patents in 2010. The 86 patents ranked the school 10th among colleges and 281st among all entities in the top 300, which includes hundreds of companies.

A public institution founded in 1956, USF remains significantly behind schools like the University of California System, which had 323 patents in 2011, MIT, with 160 patents, and Stanford, with 153 patents. Still, USF is the only university from Florida, and the entire Southeast, in the top 10. “It's amazing that we made it two years in a row,” Sanberg says. “I wouldn't be surprised if we made it again next year.”

The top 10 isn't only a source of pride. University officials, and attorneys and others in the patent industry, say more approved patents means more chances to produce a groundbreaking drug or world-changing medical device. Plus, in a tight budget environment, schools that make back money in research and patents are in rare space.

“As competition for research funding tightens,” says Howard Federoff, a board member with the National Academy of Inventors, “a university's ability to utilize funding efficiently may make an important difference in moving discoveries from the laboratory to the market.”

Businesslike approach
USF's Patents and Licensing division, also called the Tech Transfer office, monitors inventions at the school from design to invention to the marketplace.

The division isn't profitable. But the department did make a sizable income jump in fiscal 2011, when it reported $17 million in licensing fees, up dramatically from 2010, when it tallied less than $2 million. The increase stems primarily from a $16 million payment USF received from Winston-Salem, N.C.-based biopharmaceutical firm Targacept.

The fee was for a drug that USF professors, led by Sanberg, created to treat secondary effects caused by anti-depressants. But while the drug, labeled TC-5214, passed two early approval phases, it stalled in a third stage. USF officials say the drug could come back, for another use. For now it's just another example of how difficult it is to bring a drug to market — albeit an expensive one for Targacept.

Moreover, it's why Valerie Landrio McDevitt, assistant vice president of the Tech Transfer office, says securing a bankable patent is akin to sifting for gold. “Taking things to market isn't easy,” says McDevitt, a chemist and patent attorney. “It takes talent because you need experienced people who know what they are doing. And it takes money.”

It also requires a delicate balance between what's marketable and what fits USF's mission, which is to “embrace innovation ... while serving as the state's leading metropolitan research university. “We are not here 100% to generate strong products,” says Sanberg. “We are here to do transitional research that's not stuck in an ivory tower.”

McDevitt and her team of intellectual property experts, which includes several Ph.Ds, constantly comb USF's campus for the best in inventions and transitional research. The department's business liaisons work with the inventors on implementation and other practical tasks. The office will then match the product with outside partners, such as manufacturers.

The USF Tech Transfer department runs on thin margins, like most other universities. It gives 55% of licensing income to the faculty-inventors, while another 10% goes to the inventor's department.

McDevitt says her department seeks answers for two key questions when it looks at a potential patent. One, can it be protected? Two, can it be sold? Those answers can be unpredictable, says McDevitt. That complicates the process.

'Getting known'
Nonetheless, USF has posted marked improvement in several key patent measurements. For one, disclosures, when school faculty or staff notifies the Tech Transfer office of a patentable or commercially viable idea, hit an all-time high of 170 in fiscal 2011. The school had 160 disclosures in 2010, and hovered around 140 from 2006 to 2009.

The number of startup companies launched through the patent office also hit an all-time high this fiscal year with 10, which gives it more than 30 since 2005. Says McDevitt: “People are getting to know USF as a research institution.”

Both McDevitt and Sanberg have believed in the need to combine business sense with research at a university setting for several years. But it wasn't always that way.

McDevitt, for example, was a chemist for Bausch & Lomb and a patent attorney before she joined USF. Her father worked for General Electric, and some of her best childhood memories were when she saw GE scientists at work. McDevitt says even though scoring the next Gatorade is like catching a “bolt of lightning,” she manages every project like it's a blockbuster.

Sanberg, meanwhile, a professor at Ohio University and Brown University before USF hired him in 1992, says it took a stint in private industry to turn him around. Sanberg co-founded a research company, StemCells Inc., which now trades on the Nasdaq. That's where he saw his research pay off for the first time. Says Sanberg: “It was a revelation.”

Sanberg and McDevitt are determined to see that revelation infiltrate USF.

“Universities need to be responsible economic engines for the community,” says Sanberg. “We have to look for alternative sources of revenue.”

'Sticky Wicket'
Valerie Landrio McDevitt, assistant vice president for Patents and Licensing at USF, fondly calls her office a sticky wicket — lingo for difficult times.

The department's main task is to figure out what inventions and innovations, which come from faculty and students, will make it in the marketplace. “The majority of what we do is business development,” says McDevitt. “But you have to have a product to sell.”

Here are some examples of recent USF-supported patents:
• Cancer detection: A patent that improves the current technology for women who suspect a lesion or lump in the breast. It uses a radioactive seed, and is considered a less invasive procedure with better results, USF says.
• Roller coasters: This patent, not commercialized yet, allows roller coaster passengers to control their path on the ride.
• Dance moves: A patent for a wheelchair with a “hands-free powered mobility device” that enables disabled users to dance.

Start Them Up
A significant impact of securing 80-plus patents two years in a row, which is what USF has done, is the ability to help formulate new businesses.

The school has been behind more than 30 startups the past five years. Here's a glance at two of those companies:
• KeriCure: Founded in 2011, the Wesley Chapel-based firm produces a line of wound care products. The patented technology, discovered at USF, is a bacteria-resistant liquid bandage that can cover and treat wounds.
Kerriann Greenhalgh, who recently earned her Ph.D from USF, co-founded the firm with Edward Turos, a chemistry professor at the school. Greenhalgh hopes the product will receive final regulatory approval by next year, so the company can begin to market it over the counter and in the hospital industry. “I think we have really great technology,” Greenhalgh says. “I'm looking forward to getting the product in the right hands.”
Raising capital is the company's biggest challenge, says Greenhalgh, more than even the technology. The firm recently raised $300,000, though it sought $500,000.
• Ablenook: The Tampa-based company, founded last year by USF graduate students and researchers Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross, utilizes new technology to aid the construction of prefabricated structures.
The portable structures snap together and are easily transported, the company says. Unskilled laborers can assemble the interlocking components. The company's pitch is that these structures are well suited for places where speed and efficiency is key, like disaster areas.


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