Lonely invention WLTM clever stranger for fun and profit

Samuel Arbesman
Research Fortnight
11-07-2012

There is a tradition in academic science: develop something new in your lab, and your university will help you get a patent, license it, and make sure you get a portion of the profits from your brainwave.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Too often, universities, blinded by a few examples of research that earned vast sums of money, guard the rights to inventions jealously, while providing few incentives for technology transfer offices to strive to make sure that a technology is actually licensed and used.

This combination of protectiveness and inertia can be paralysing. Many people say that 95 per cent of all intellectual property generated by universities is unused. And only 5 per cent of research funds are recaptured by licensing or corporate spin-outs. Basic research need not always be commercialisable, but these numbers are shockingly low.

There are efforts, though, to reverse these dispiriting numbers. For example, the iBridge network, run by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation where I work, aims to lower the barrier for an individual who wants to license scientific technology.

At present, you have to navigate the Byzantine legal structure of the university in order to legally use most university-developed technologies. But iBridge makes it easy: you go online, search the technologies, and find one you want. Click on your choice, pay a fee, and the licence is yours. Thus far, 161 organisations are participating, with well over 15,000 innovations available on the site.

In the UK, something similar is happening with Easy Access IP, an organisation that aims to build bridges between academia and industry by lowering the barriers to licensing a technology. Easy Access IP finds dormant intellectual property and makes simple legal agreements that enable companies to license the work for free (see related article).

But what about a really cool invention that has no clear path to commercialisation, or seems ahead of its time? Who has both the specialist knowledge and imaginative insight to see the commercial angle to arcane research? Must we give it away for free—or worse, leave it on the shelf?

Enter citizen science, an umbrella term for projects that involve large numbers of lay people in the process of science.

An Oxford-based startup called Marblar.com (which I am currently advising) is bringing citizen science to tech transfer. Marblar aims to open up orphaned IP to the masses by creating competitions where anyone can attempt to find an application for dormant innovations.

Although the best suggestions get prizes and online points, a big part of the fun is belonging to a community dedicated to developing interesting uses for abandoned inventions, having fun kicking around ideas, and getting an inside track on innovation. An important feature of Marblar is that it’s cumulative. You can build on what other Marblars have suggested, ratcheting up the process of innovation.

It seems to work. A pilot competition to find a use for a new method of binding DNA strands together without using an enzyme resulted in the sponsor of the competition getting two possible start-up ideas. That seems to be the way for Marblar to make money: organisations that are unsure what to do with a technology that they’ve licensed put up money for a competition, Marblar runs it, and the community finds the answers.

It’s not yet clear how well this will work as a business model. Many companies in the overlapping areas of crowdsourcing and social media hope to turn other people’s unpaid labour into private profit. Often, that aim is well concealed, and anyway, each user’s work has little economic value in isolation.

Marblar users, however, will be well aware of the potential value of their input. This will require careful handling of IP rights (which the company’s founders are working on), and it’ll be interesting to see what happens should the site yield any blockbuster innovations. Even so, the potential good, for both researchers and society, outweighs the risks.

Academics are good at coming up with interesting ideas. But they are not always good at figuring out how to make them useful, or commercialising them. And we can’t always rely on tech transfer offices to know how to apply their scientists’ research to important problems.

But these don’t have to be rate-limiting steps. By providing a mechanism for a large crowd to work on this, the problem may finally vanish.

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This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.