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University research produces patents; entrepreneurship grows in importance

At a research institution like the University, the decision to patent and market products invented by professors and graduate students can be a complicated one.

Professors, graduate students, visiting lecturers, and other faculty can choose to commercialize the products of research they conduct using University resources. If they do so, they can access University resources like the Keller Center and the Office of Technology Licensing. The University also has a right to any licenses, patents, and other intellectual property (IP) rights arising from these commercial efforts. Any resulting revenues are split according to a prescribed formula between the researchers and the University. Often, a company or other commercial entity is used to market the IP, in which case it holds some of the rights and receives some of the revenues of the IP, as well.


“Entrepreneurship is becoming more important on campus in general,” said OTL New Ventures Associate Anthony Williams. “A high proportion of University IP is now being licensed to startups.”

This increased focus on entrepreneurship reflects national trends, he added.

Edgar Choueiri, a professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department and director of the University’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory, stated that the University “has gone from paying very little attention to paying more attention [to entrepreneurship]...compared to before, but not much more attention compared to other research universities.”

One of the University’s goals, as stated on the website of the Office of the Dean for Research, is “to be one of the world's leading research universities.” According to some markers, the University is accomplishing that goal: CollegeChoice ranks it as number seven in top research universities nationally, and U.S. News ranks Princeton as number nine on a list of “institutions from the U.S. and more than 60 other countries... ranked based on 13 indicators that measure their academic research performance and their global and regional reputations.”

Much of Princeton’s research marketing is conducted through OTL, a resource for researchers seeking to market their findings. Its mission is to “[facilitate] the transformation of scientific and technological discoveries into products and services for societal benefit in a manner consistent with Princeton University’s emphasis on preeminent research, education and dedication to public service.”

OTL only plays a role in the entrepreneurship process once researchers request their involvement. Postdoctoral and graduate students, professors, and visiting lecturers must first decide whether to enable free access to their research or to market it.


According to Professor Choueiri, ethical motivations have a strong influence on this decision.

“Every researcher has to make a decision at some point in his life, whether something is worth protecting with a patent or letting out in the real world. And it’s a tough decision because it involves personal profit,” Choueiri said.

Patenting can sometimes help the technology spread more effectively, Choueiri said. It creates competition, which incentivizes further research and development of the product. However, he cautioned that the reverse can sometimes be true: the patent can “stifle technology from evolving.” This happens when access to the technology becomes too strictly limited.

Choueiri patented a new technique for producing “tonally pure 3D sound from two loudspeakers” to create sound as it would be perceived in real life. He has licensed the technology through OTL and with BACCH Laboratories, which was built around this particular invention.

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Choueiri said his invention is the third highest in gross revenue out of all licenses the University has held. The highest was Alimta, a drug for lung cancer treatment based upon a molecule developed in the 1980s by Edward C. Taylor, emeritus professor of chemistry. The drug was licensed by Eli Lilly & Co. and generated $1.82 billion during the first nine months of 2011, producing about $100-150 million per year in revenue for the University, according to Williams.

The University’s second top-grossing license was for an innovation to “produce highly efficient light emission from organic phosphorescent materials” that allowed the production of “inexpensive and high-quality video displays” which spend relatively little battery power. This technology was licensed to the Universal Display Corporation by the University.

Though OTL does not control where exactly the revenue generated by a licensed technology is spent, both the University and OTL aim to use funds from patents to advance research and academic pursuits, in accordance with legal expectations for the use of profits from patents arising from federal government-funded research. Funds are not distinguished based on how they were obtained, but most are spent on “educational and general” costs. The influx of revenue generated by Alimta enabled the expenditures necessary to construct the Frick Chemistry Laboratory.

“OTL does a great job of supporting the faculty, and any postdocs or graduate students that want to continue to push forward IP developed by the University,” said Nicholas Davy, a graduate student in the chemical and biological engineering department. Davy is working under Professor Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo in her development of the use of transparent solar cells in windows.

According to Choueiri, the University’s primary goal remains to publish research.

“The University does track transfer in the most part because it wants to provide a service to those individuals and we want them to be happy that the University is helping them in fulfilling the commercial potential of their research,” Williams said.

Other University resources for entrepreneurship guidance include the Keller Center, which aims “to educate leaders for a technology-driven society, by innovating education and fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and design.”

The University does not consider number of patents filed when evaluating professors for promotions, Choueiri said.

At the same time, "ultimately keeping the best people, which means the best faculty, the best grad students, the best students, is key to Princeton maintaining its status as one of the most preeminent universities,” Williams said.

As Williams said, along with providing a service to faculty and students, entrepreneurship resources at the University like OTL aim to “do some good out there in the real world.”