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Campus commercialization: Thirsty for the next Gatorade Add to ...

One of the people who knows how hard it is to find another Gatorade-type invention is Angus Livingstone. He's been managing the University-Industry Liaison Office at the University of British Columbia for twenty years now, making him the "dean of technology transfer" in Canada. During that time, he estimates that they've looked seriously at perhaps 2,500 different technologies. UBC holds hundreds of patents, and in the last year or so, it has surpassed the $100-million mark in total revenue earned from license agreements, making it easily the top school in Canada in intellectual property earnings.

However, Mr. Livingstone emphasizes that the vast majority of inventions they work on never wind up making any money. Of all the revenue UBC has earned, he estimates that 98% of it comes from just 20 different license agreements. The university's biggest money maker has been QLT, a spin-off company started by a group of UBC biologists in the early '80s that is now one of Canada's biggest biopharmaceutical companies.

Mr. Livingston says it's possible for universities to be too vigilant when it comes to protecting intellectual property. "There are certain technologies," he says, "which do have great value, that may turn into large companies or even entire industries, and those should be protected, but there are very few of them. In the '90s there was a lot of concern about the potential value of intellectual property, and there was a very strong desire to try to protect everything and extract as much value as possible. That was often at odds with industry though. They wanted easy access to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. It cost us some relationships.

"Eventually, we started to understand each other better. Now, we understand the needs of industry and industry understands the needs of the university. The benefits flow in both directions and that includes training and educational opportunities for our students."

At the University of Western Ontario , Mr. Paul Paolatto agrees that managing the relationship between the university and industry is an essential part of the process. Paolatto is the Acting Executive Director of WORLDiscoveries, Western's main technology-transfer office, and the former president of a company that started as a technology spinoff at UWO. Since he comes from the industry side, rather than the academic side, he feels he brings a unique perspective on how the two can work together best. Mr. Paolatto sees the mission of technology transfer as one of expanding upon the work that researchers are already doing, not directing them toward his notion of what a money-making idea might be. "Researchers tend to focus on publication and leave it at that, but if we can take some of that intelligence and commercialize it, then there can be benefits to the environment, to health care and to the country as a whole. It's not just about monetary gain; though that is a consideration, this can also be about social gain.

"We are seeing so many inventions that previously would have died on the lab bench and we're moving them to market. Canada's biggest asset today is our knowledge base. If we can tap into that a bit better it will help offset some of the decline we see in other areas of the economy. This is really an exciting place to be. I'm delighted to be a part of it."

On the opposite side, purists argue that even if corporate funds do not in fact compromise academic ethics, they can still give the impression that ethics are compromised, which is almost as worrying. One case often cited is that of Dr. David Healy.

A respected scholar from the University of Wales College of Medicine, Dr. Healy was offered the position in 2000 of heading up the Mood and Anxiety Disorder Program at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAHM), a hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto. Just before he took up his new position, Dr. Healy gave a talk during which he blamed Prozac and other SSRI antidepressants for triggering suicide in some patients.

Shortly after his talk, the offer from CAMH was suddenly rescinded. He was informed that it was apparent that his approach to psychiatry was not going to be compatible with CAMH. The appearance of a serious breach of Dr. Healy's academic freedom was exacerbated by the fact that Prozac's maker, Eli Lilly, was a major sponsor of U of T, CAMH, and the clinic that Dr. Healy was supposed to lead. Both the university and Eli Lilly insist that the sponsorship arrangements had nothing to do with the job offer being rescinded. The incident became known internationally as "The Toronto Affair" and Healy's $9.4-million lawsuit was settled out of court.

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