t work in his darkened laboratory at the University of Würzburg in the fall of 1895, German physics professor Wilhelm Röntgen made a startling, and quite accidental, discovery. During an experiment with cathode rays, he found that a nearby screen coated with barium had begun to glow. When he placed his hand between the rays and the screen, he could clearly see the bones beneath the flesh.

For weeks afterward, he secretly repeated the experiment, telling no one except his wife. He feared colleagues would believe he had gone insane. Finally convincing himself the phenomenon was real, he sent numerous reports of his findings–with an image of the bones of his wife’s hand–to various labs around Europe. Röntgen’s paper was reprinted in Nature, Science, and other journals within weeks. Within a month, X-rays were used to set the broken arm of a young boy in Dartmouth, New Hampshire. Within a year, a thousand papers were published on the phenomenon.The shy, middle-aged professor, who lived in an apartment above his lab, received letters of congratulations from around the world. In 1901, he won the first Nobel prize in physics. But Röntgen, who gave only one public talk about his discovery, declined to seek patents or proprietary claims on X-rays.

Clearly, the University of Würzburg did not have an Office of Technology Transfer.

More than three hundred universities now have technology transfer offices, catalysts for the commercialization of products and techniques invented on their campuses.
Several university inventions have become household names—Gatorade was developed at the University of Florida, the nicotine patch at UCLA, the Google search engine at Stanford. 
Medical discoveries such as gene-splicing (Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco), the human growth hormone (University of California, Berkeley), the vaccine for hepatitis B (University of Washington), and anti-HIV drugs (Emory) have improved health and well-being for millions.
Even the humanities are getting into the picture—Dartmouth College is in the process of patenting computer software that will determine the “controversiality index” of books by analyzing reviews.
In 2003, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, more than 3,450 United States patents were issued to colleges and universities, with total licensing revenues exceeding $1 billion.  
Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) was established in 1993, and has received an infusion of resources and staff in recent years, including a new director, to keep up with increasing demands and expectations. Emory’s earnings from commercialized research came to $22.5 million last year, making it eighteenth among universities nationally.
“We’re not the ones who develop the product. We’re not the ones who make the discovery,” says OTT director Todd Sherer, who came to Emory from a similar position in Oregon in October 2004. “We’re the ones who negotiate between the worlds of academia and industry. Our focus is on value creation.”
The OTT helps Emory faculty manage the tangle of regulatory and legal processes that often keep discoveries from being marketed. Major steps in this process include disclosure of the discovery, deciding if the invention has commercial value, patenting the invention, and licensing the rights to the product or technology to industry.
More than twenty-five inventions are in various stages of development by Emory licensees, from software to medicines. Six of these products are already in the marketplace, and nine more are in clinical trials. The majority of Emory’s tech transfer revenue came from two anti-HIV drugs that bring in millions in royalties each year.
Emory’s technology transfer profits are expected to rise significantly in the coming years, as other products in the OTT “pipeline” come to fruition and drugs now in development make their ways to pharmacies and hospitals.
“Right now, Emory is at the best point in its history in this area and has a pipeline many companies would envy,” says Michael J. Mandl, executive vice president for finance and administration. “These revenues will provide a very important influx of ‘seed’ funds to jump-start new initiatives that will eventually be self-supporting if successful.”
Technology transfer at universities received a huge boost with the passage of the federal Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed educational institutions and non-profit organizations to retain the patents on products developed with federal funds. The act also encouraged collaboration with businesses.
“Basically, we’re mandated by federal law to identify promising discoveries and to make sure  the public benefits from this knowledge when possible and feasible,” Sherer says.
Before Bayh-Dole, these patents remained in the public domain, so there was little incentive for universities to license the products or for businesses to take a risk on development. Fewer than 250 patents a year were licensed to universities before the law passed; now, more than ten times that number are issued annually.
The law also stipulates that universities must share profits with inventors. Emory’s patent profits are split among the inventor (who receives anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the royalties on a sliding scale); the inventor’s department, lab, and school; and the University.
“Royalties can be huge for one big hit,” Sherer says. “You’ve got faculty heroes who have generated large sums of money for the institution. What really motivates them is the thought of never having to write a grant proposal again.”
The largest success story in Emory’s tech-transfer history are professors Dennis Liotta and Raymond Schinazi, who have brought in millions for the University from the discovery and development of several of the most widely used anti-HIV drugs.
“It’s taken away a lot of financial concerns and enables me to focus all my efforts on the things that are important to me, a very high percentage of which are academic,” Liotta says. “I like teaching, I like research. To many of us, that is even more valuable than the personal compensation.”
 As is the extra revenue directed back into their labs. “It enables us to do high-risk research, whereas if you are reliant on grants and NIH funding, you tend toward safe research,” Liotta says. ”If you don’t do high-risk research, the likelihood of a breakthrough is small.”
Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer banks on such breakthroughs. The OTT is on the first floor of the North Decatur Building, an L-shaped wing of offices where patent law and regulatory requirements are bandied about even in casual conversations.
Upon his arrival last year, Sherer lobbied hard to have an oversized window installed in the OTT’s main door to send out the message that the office is “open for business.” 
The administration applauds OTT’s more active stance. “Not too many years ago, universities were almost ashamed to see the results of their scholarly work become commercialized,” says President James W. Wagner. “Now, we understand commercialization as another way that we can have a positive impact on society.”
The office’s fourteen staff members include MBAs, lawyers, engineers, sociologists, and scientists. “Tech transfer is the convergence of science, law, and business,” says Sherer, who has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science from Oregon State University and a doctorate in toxicology and molecular biology from Washington State University. “Our staff must be conversant in all of these disciplines.”
Sherer worked in Washington State’s patent office as a graduate student, later becoming a licensing associate. He developed a passion for the fledgling, fast-moving field, serving as director of the University of Oregon’s Office of Technology Transfer and director of technology and research collaborations at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland before coming to Emory as assistant vice president of research.
As a master falconer who flies his hawks weekly and a father of three children ages four to fifteen, Sherer understands the importance of being a calm, supportive presence in the midst of competing demands.
“There is a new awareness by the faculty and the administration about tech transfer, which can be a double-edged sword,” says Sherer. “Expectations are huge. But the truth is, big hits are rare. They defy the odds. You can do great research and come up with a great discovery, and you still need a great company and great luck. All of this has to happen for a product to make a profit.”
Most discoveries do not become marketable products or generate meaningful income—at least not directly. University research, unlike corporate research, traditionally has been driven by a scientist’s curiosity. The main motivation is knowledge, not profits.
“There is always the potential that an emphasis on commercialized research at a university could threaten basic research if the primary goal is to develop a product. Hires would be based on who’s most likely to bring in revenue from intellectual property,” says Asa G. Candler Professor of Emergency Medicine Donald Stein, former dean of the graduate school and editor of Buying In and Selling Out: The Commercialization of the American Research University.
“If you went too far downstream, could it challenge the nature of the university?” Stein asks. “I think it could. It depends what the university’s values are. Offices of technology transfer are just expeditors, they don’t set policy.”
Stein, who is himself seeking patents on several new treatments for traumatic brain injury through the OTT, says one clear benefit is that the inventor’s work is protected.
“It’s not always about money,” he says. “Researchers get patents and copyrights so they exert control over their intellectual property. You can do all the work, and have someone else exploit the situation.”
The standard requirement for a patent is that an invention must be “novel, non-obvious, and useful.” More than just being a product that no one has patented before, it must acknowledge a “spark of genius.” As a tradeoff for being granted exclusive rights to the discovery, the patent holder agrees to teach the world how to make and use the invention.
“About 10 percent of discoveries are not commercializable,” says Sherer. “Another 10 percent would be developed no matter what. Most of our time is spent on the 80 percent of discoveries that fall in between. A common criticism aimed at tech-transfer offices is, ‘If you guys were just better at picking winners . . .’  But we have limited data, and have to make decisions about discoveries at an embryonic stage.”
Nevertheless, the OTT is trying to tip the odds by becoming proactive—its new VentureLab program, directed by Kevin Lei, will identify marketable discoveries in their early stages and find the funding for scientists to bring the technologies to market.
A recent survey by Emory and the Georgia Institute of Technology of sixty-two universities found that most faculty inventions needed further development—only 12 percent are ready for practical application when they are licensed to companies. 
University-invented products can either be licensed to existing companies or the researchers can start a company themselves to develop and market their invention.
Emory faculty researchers are affiliated with twenty-nine start-up companies, from Octagen Corporation, founded in 1997 to produce therapeutic proteins for the treatment of hemophilia, to GeoVax, founded in 2001 to develop, manufacture, and market innovative human vaccines.
“Understanding what makes a product successful is not necessarily what academicians are focused on,” says Lei, an MBA from Georgia Tech who worked as a hematologist in a research lab in China and formed his own start-up company before joining the OTT. “VentureLab will help scientists look at their discoveries in a new way.”
A way that might pay dividends not only to the inventor, but to the world.





© 2005 Emory University