Institutions of higher learning are uniquely inspiring places – faculty and staff work their hardest to instill a passion for learning in the generations of students that walk their campuses, and university faculty and researchers across the country are constantly experimenting with, innovating and creating new technologies that could potentially benefit society.
This goal of disseminating research and new technologies for the betterment of society is especially important to public universities, which rely on public funding to support their institutional education and research efforts.
How do we support our faculties’ innovative efforts and ensure they’re accessible to the public? One way is through technology transfer – a process in which a researcher’s parent institution helps them patent, copyright or trademark their intellectual property, and then find suitable industry partners who can develop it for the public market, or when applicable, offer it to the public directly for a modest fee. This also allows researchers from other institutions to build upon the works of their peers, collaborating in the name of good research and in the benefit of society.
Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho have all embraced tech transfer by creating offices to license their work.
When Boise State associate professor of biology Juliette Tinker developed a staph vaccine for cows, Boise State’s Office of Technology Transfer connected Tinker with agriculture industry partners who helped her make the vaccine more commercially viable and engage potential licensees to provide feedback on her research progression.
For many years, the Department of English at Boise State struggled with a dilemma common to campuses all over the nation: how to place incoming freshmen in writing classes that suited their diverse skill levels and needs. English faculty members Heidi Estrem and Dawn Shepherd, along with assessment program manager Samantha Sturman, created The Write Class, an online tool that matches students to the class in which they’re most likely to flourish.
In its methods, The Write Class proved successful. In the first year of its implementation at Boise State, student retention rates rose by 5 percent. In other words, approximately 120 more students at Boise State successfully completed their first-year writing course than had the previous year. Thanks to tech transfer, The Write Class now has been implemented at 10 college campuses nationwide.
At Boise State, 60 percent of the net profits earned through tech transfer are reinvested in university research, while 40 percent go to the faculty member or employee as taxable personal income. But while tech transfer most often applies to faculty and employee intellectual property, students can play a role in the creation of new intellectual properties – and earn a share of their successes.
Polymorphic Games is an independent game studio at the University of Idaho that has provided a platform for students in computer sciences, biological sciences and design, to learn and implement real-world applications. The studio develops evolutionary video games, and its first, “Darwin’s Demons,” is now available through the world’s largest PC game distributor, STEAM. About 20 students, under the guidance of biological sciences professor Barrie Robison and computer science professor Terence Soule, were involved in creating the game. Darwin’s Demons has already started to receive royalties, a part of which is shared with the creators. Thanks to the game’s success, the studio was able to hire students last summer to help develop their next game.
Robison said that his goal is to keep the studio sustainable in order to hire more students, giving them the interdisciplinary skills necessary to succeed in today’s job market.
Those skills are on healthy display at Greenspeed Research, a nonprofit in the Treasure Valley whose mission is to create learning opportunities for the STEM disciplines and promote renewable energy. Greenspeed was originally founded as a student club at Boise State to develop green technology through motor sports. They were the first Boise State students to patent their research with the help of the Office of Technology Transfer.
With help from Boise State’s Venture College, they launched their student club into a successful, world-record-holding business. This past summer, Greenspeed Research broke a decade-old land-speed record for diesel trucks in Utah.
Not every instance of technology transfer will lead to a new world record or successful video game, just as not every patent can or will make money – but then, universities aren’t in the business of making money, not first and foremost. Universities are committed to supporting their faculty, staff and students in the pursuit of knowledge, with the recognition that not all paths will lead to success, and even the paths that do are rarely straight or paved.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly.