SAN FRANCISCO When it comes to research and development, experts say the U.S. isn't making the most of one of its last competitive advantages--the talent in its colleges and universities.
The national economic landscape could be significantly brighter if corporations and academia would stop haggling over intellectual property rights, said Rochester Institute of Technology president Bill Destler, in a paper on the school's Web site, "A New Relationship between Business and Academia."
In the paper, Destler suggests that corporations could pay universities up front for R&D to be shared by students, faculty and universities. In return, when a project is launched, universities would relinquish all IP rights associated with the work to their industry sponsor.
"The whole idea is that the faculty or staff don't know whether any IP is going to be developed," Destler said. "They could hold out for those IP rights but, in fact, they might be worth nothing in the final analysis."
Destler stressed that he's referring to new R&D efforts for which industry seeks university help. "If a university or college has been working on a particular area for some time and they have developed patents or IP, I'm not talking about donating them," he said. "I think we should be much more flexible on IP rights in that situation."
RIT is currently hammering out such agreements with several companies. Industry response to the proposal has been very positive, Destler said.
The proposal, while general, is probably the most business-friendly among many efforts to realign and improve academic-business relationships. It could "re-energize" corporate R&D, Destler argued, which is often stymied by fears that projects won't generate profits soon enough in the face of aggressive foreign competition.
Companies can be skittish about the long-term relationships that come with an ongoing future tab for university-owned IP. That wouldn't be the case with RIT's approach, according to Destler. "The companies would be reassured that they would not be held hostage to any future royalty payments to universities or colleges for work that they fund."
Reaction to the idea of universities handing over patent rights was mixed.
John Cronin, who manages ipCapital Group (Williston, Vt), a consulting and licensing firm, agreed that the business-academic relationship on IP needs work, but expressed concerns about Destler's proposal. "The current system is problematic. The solution makes sense on its face, but problems come in implementation," said Cronin, who spent 18 years at IBM and has worked with many universities and technology companies.