Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., D.Sc., President, National Academy of Inventors


Universities, Industry and Governments Must Partner to Advance True Innovation

Dr. Sanberg is also Senior Vice President for Research, Innovation & Economic Development; Executive Director, Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair; Distinguished University Professor; University of South Florida

Dr. Paul Sanberg is on a mission to give inventors on university campuses around the country and the world “rock star” status. As a researcher of therapies addressing neurodegenerative diseases and stroke, and a named inventor on 111 patents, Dr. Sanberg understands firsthand the importance of IP rights in commercializing innovation in order to bring often life-saving technologies to the public. “What I found over the years was that, as academics, we’re not really trained during our college years to be involved on the inventor side of the process,” says Dr. Sanberg. “We don’t often get involved in the process of licensing and working with companies.”

It was for this reason that Dr. Sanberg sought out other inventors at the University of South Florida five years ago to discuss ways to bridge that gap. What resulted was the founding of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), a non-profit member organization comprising U.S. and international universities, and governmental and non-profit research institutions, which today spans more than 200 institutions and is growing rapidly.

As part of its mission to promote and recognize innovation in academia, the NAI has been partnering with IPO since 2012 on the list of Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents—a spinoff of IPO’s list of Top 300 Organizations Granted U.S. Patents. Says Dr. Sanberg: “We love working with organizations like IPO to help promote invention in this country, especially as related to universities, and to enhance partnerships with industry. We’re honored that IPO wanted to do this list with us and we cherish that relationship.”

Here, Dr. Sanberg talks more about the mission of the NAI, what more companies and IP organizations can do to help ensure university innovation continues to thrive and how pending U.S. patent legislation could inhibit “true innovation” if Congress isn’t careful.

How did you become interested in working with inventions and patents?

There was much more interest from investors and company partners to take my research and discoveries further when there was IP involved.

I view myself as an academic and a scientist, as well as someone who has been involved with startup companies. As part of that, as my career advanced and I started dealing more with startups and various technologies, I became involved with patenting by necessity. I realized that it was an important part of translating research to society and to commercializing one’s work. What I found was there was much more interest from investors and company partners to take my research and discoveries further when there was IP involved.

What was the motivation for founding the NAI?

In addition to being an inventor, I wanted to be more involved with helping my academic institution. I moved up into senior administration at the University of South Florida as Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation in order to help promote research, especially that which is translational and will help economic development and society. What I found over the years was that, as academics, we’re not really trained during our college years to be involved on the inventor side of the process. An academic’s research career is all about getting grants, publishing papers, making certain discoveries and hoping that what you find will help in basic science and translational work. We don’t often get involved in the process of licensing out and working with companies.

When I took over the senior leadership role, one of the first things I did was to see how many other inventors there were at this university. I invited anyone who was involved with inventing or who owned patents to come to lunch, and over 100 professors showed up. They were all inventors with issued U.S. patents across all disciplines—from marine science to the arts to traditional STEM sciences and medicine; you name it. We all felt this was a great opportunity. We realized that we had a common interest and that we’d all done this on the side by ourselves so far. It was not a mission of the university or a core academic initiative at that point, so we had done these things in spite of the institution. We thought it would be important to make inventing and commercialization part of the institution’s mission and to take it further, so we formed an academy to deal with these issues.

That academy took hold and other universities wanted to do the same thing. Now, five years later, we have almost 200 research universities around the country and the world that are members of the NAI and interested in changing the culture of universities. We want to honor our inventors and make them rock stars on campus, because these are people who are involved in the academic mission, and also involved in taking their research into their communities.

What were the main gaps that existed initially that NAI wanted to address?

We wanted to honor the inventors and to make their work part of the universities’ missions.

They were questions like “how do we create more public-private-partnerships?” and “how do we create more university-company partnerships?” I felt it was the inventors at the universities who were involved in and understood that process, so by harnessing them we could use them in all our missions. We could use them in the education mission because many students today want to have this kind of focus—they want to start companies and have their own business incubators. Also, other faculty who knew nothing about the process could learn from them. I went through a full professorship and was a chair before I knew anything about patents. I wish I had had that kind of education earlier.

We also wanted to honor the inventors and to make their work part of the universities’ missions. You had faculty who every year were getting evaluated and, in most cases, having patents and inventions or having a startup company didn’t count much for their promotion and tenure. Over the last four or five years, the NAI has pushed for that; it’s been a big cause of ours and it has taken hold across the country now.

Why did you partner with IPO on the list of Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents? What’s the value of knowing which universities have the most patents?

[The Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Utility Patents list] has shown that universities do contribute to patents and to the culture of entrepreneurship.

That’s a good question, because entrepreneurship, commercialization and transferring technology is not about the number of patents per se—it’s about the whole process. But we do need some metrics. Many states now evaluate universities by numerous metrics, such as patent numbers, disclosures, licenses, number of startup companies, royalties, etc. But beyond that, when I first saw IPO’s list of Top 300 Organizations Granted U.S. Patents, I was surprised that there weren’t many universities. There were only a dozen or so, and that has remained consistent. The Top 300 is a wonderful list; it really shows a lot of companies that have a focus on patents and commercialization, and so we approached IPO to ask about looking a little bit deeper. We know the top 12 or 13 universities, but what about further down? So we worked with IPO and it’s been a great partnership.

I think the importance is that, in addition to having a metric, it has shown that universities do contribute to patents and to the culture of entrepreneurship. In addition, it helps us to define how we’re doing as a country compared to others. If you look at the Top 100 lists you’ll see some shifting of foreign universities getting into doing more patenting in the U.S. over the last few years, for instance. These are indicators of how we’re doing as a country and are also indicative of the narrowing of the innovation gap with the rest of the world.

How do you address criticism by the public, mainstream media and academia of patents in general?

Any time people want to protect something instead of keeping it open, those who don’t necessarily understand can criticize. But the founders of this country and countries before us did have a patent system and they offered protection for a period of time so that they could start a business without worrying so much about competition. I see value to that still. I see value to open source of patents as well in some areas. It’s a different world we have now. But university research involves a lot of money and it involves a lot of time of university researchers, students and staff. If they take the result of all of that forward and trust a company to take it on and license it, they want to feel protected. They want to feel that what they discovered in the lab is protected just like their written work is protected with copyright.

Clearly there are bad players. There are patent trolls out there, but when universities are interested in protecting technology, they’re really protecting their faculty and students’ discoveries, so we don’t feel that they’re on the same level as the “patent trolls” that have companies only to make money by abusive lawsuits and weren’t really involved in the original inventions. So while we think there needs to be some change in laws to prevent bad behavior, we also think it shouldn’t be so broad as to negatively affect universities’ pursuit of patents and technology transfer.

There are some in academia who have advocated for eliminating patents, either altogether or for certain industries—what’s your response to them?

I didn’t know anything about patents until later in life. I discovered some interesting things early on and I published those discoveries since it was the avenue I knew. I look back and I think those could have been good inventions and I might have been given more research dollars and more partnerships with my university and industry if I had patented then. If people are educated about the process and understand patents and can make informed decisions, then I think there are opportunities to open source, there are opportunities to refrain from patenting and just publish, and there are opportunities to patent and protect inventions. This is a very complicated world we’re in and research and development take an enormous amount of money in order to get products out there. Getting therapeutics to the market is a great example of that—the investment won’t be made by a company without a patent position and those products would never make it to the market and help the people who truly need them. There are other models that could be important. But don’t forget that we also have to compete worldwide. The worry I would have personally about choosing open source and deciding not to patent is that there will be competition out there. There will be other inventors in other countries who will patent and create different versions of that technology, which could result in more lawsuits. So we have to be careful and find the right model that works for everyone.

What’s the role of IPO and IPOEF in helping to get the message out to the academic community and in creating a more positive perception?

I think IPO and IPOEF and other invention organizations are absolutely critical. The more we get the message out there and get everyone to understand what patents are about, whether we’re targeting politicians or the lay public, the better. And it’s important for universities to get their message out too. I don’t think people realize how strong universities have been in our innovation economy in the U.S. According to statistics recently published by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), between 1996 and 2010, the economic impact of university and nonprofit patent licensing was $388 billion on the U.S. GDP and $836 billion on the U.S. gross industrial output. Since 1980, universities in the U.S. have spun out more than 4,000 startup companies, and, in 2013 alone, spun out 818 companies. Three million new jobs were created over the last 30 years because of university and nonprofit patent licensing. So even though it’s not a core mission in most universities, they’ve had a significant influence.

I think it’s important that we work with IPO because they are a very mature organization and their members can help by informing their companies about the importance of partnering with universities. And the role of NAI in this case is really to help get that message out there and help increase that output so we can have an even better impact on the U.S. and world economy.

What more can individual companies do?

What we really need is more early-stage, high-risk R&D partnerships with companies in order to take all of these great inventions from universities to the marketplace.

I think it would be great if companies could continue to share and highlight the positive examples and statistics that show our system is working. It’s important because, in the absence of positive stories, the only thing the public hears is the negative anecdotes about weak patents and abusive litigation. So it behooves us to put out these stories. On the university side, AUTM has a “Put a Face on It” campaign and many universities have submitted IP inventions in video form that show some really cool things universities are doing. Here at the University of South Florida we submitted one that showcased a “dancing” wheelchair designed by a collaboration between a ballet dancer and one of our engineering departments.

The thing businesses have to remember is that university inventions tend to be early-stage, unique and more transformative to technology areas. Unlike a company where many of the patents are focused in a certain area, patents tend to be quite diverse at universities. And because they’re early-stage, they tend to have high risk. So, what we really need is more early-stage, high-risk R&D partnerships with companies in order to take all of these great inventions from universities to the marketplace. Otherwise I think true innovation will decrease.

How can governments better help the NAI’s mission?

Governments must continue to support strong and enforceable patent rights. Many of the reforms that are pending in the various bills will impact the bad actors in the industry and that’s a good thing. But at the same time, they will tend to impact all patent owners, including universities and startups, regardless of whether or not a patent owner is part of the problem. I think the university community is supportive of addressing abusive patent litigation practices, but it would be better to target the reforms that focus on the relatively small number of patent owners who engage in the abusive practices.

University creators invent what they want to invent and not what their company asked them to invent, so they tend to be extremely creative. If you protect those innovators, you’re going to allow this enhancement of creativity. Universities in general tend not to be risk-taking institutions. They need to feel comfortable, and if they don’t because they may now be brought into lawsuits with patent trolls, they will tend to do less in that area, decrease creative discovery, and may even get out of the business.