Patents In An Academic Environment

Published date11 October 2021
Subject MatterIntellectual Property, Food, Drugs, Healthcare, Life Sciences, Patent, Biotechnology & Nanotechnology
Law FirmJ A Kemp LLP
AuthorMr Andrew Bentham

The word 'inventor' tends to conjure a picture of an eccentric working late into the night in a garden shed to create weird and wonderful devices. Everything from novelty snowmen to squirrel-proof bird feeders has been patented over the years but most inventions, and inventors, do not in fact fit this stereotype at all. Many inventions arise during the course of in-house commercial research in major industries such as electronics, pharmaceuticals, telecoms or biotechnology and increasingly the academic sector is a major contributor as well.

The US Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave US universities control of federally funded inventions that their researchers originated, is widely credited with beginning a revolution in academic patenting and commercialisation. Technology transfer in universities has since become a sector in its own right. In the UK, academic institutions have become increasingly interested in patenting as it has become more relevant to research assessment exercises, funding and of course revenue. Originally this mostly came via traditional licensing but now there are more options via spin-out companies and translational funding, corporate venture funds and so forth. The UK's models to support this are as yet far from perfect and it remains noticeably easier both to spin out and scale up in the USA where the infrastructure is more developed, but the UK is probably better at technology transfer than any non-US country and certainly originates many good inventions.

Academics have changed too. Sometimes it is still is a better option just to publish and be damned - or rather hopefully praised academically - than plough money and effort into an invention that may be of tenuous protectability or commercial value. But increased awareness of intellectual property (IP) combined with a generational and attitudinal shift means it is now rare to meet a scientist who knows nothing about patents or is philosophically opposed to protecting inventions. Consistent with funding frameworks intended to foster commercial partnerships and outcomes, we have also observed a greater tendency to permit commercial and IP considerations to shape the choice and conduct of research. Academic and commercial science have in effect converged a little around IP...

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