COLUMBIA — University of Missouri System recruiters have a new selling point for prospective students. The system now allows students full ownership rights for the inventions they create on campus.
This week, the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation recognized the university system as a "commercialization leader" for the change in its policy and awarded UM a $100,000 grant to help fund student projects.
Kauffman Vice President Lesa Mitchell said that, while a few universities allow undergraduate students ownership of their intellectual property, UM was recognized for its initiative in a tough economy.
“What was unique about the University of Missouri was that they went about changing policy at the level of the board, not simply changing practice,” Mitchell said.
“The nation is in an economic crisis, and they looked at this policy change as something ... they could do to make a very visible statement in support of innovation and entrepreneurship,” she said.
The success of an student-engineered iPhone application helped highlight the need to amend and clarify previous UM rules.
In February 2009, MU journalism undergraduate Anthony Brown and three others won the Reynolds Journalism Institute iPhone student competition for their creation of Nearbuy, a real estate search application for the iPhone.
“We ended up submitting it to the Apple App Store,” Brown said. “Companies were approaching us to monetize the application and enter into partnerships, and the university was exercising its right to ownership of the intellectual property of professors and employees.”
With the help of Keith Politte, a staff member at RJI, Brown met with the university’s lawyers and made the case for the benefits of the university surrendering all rights of intellectual property to students in the cases of class projects and contests.
“We ultimately got them to surrender full rights,” Brown said. “This was a victory, and it set a precedent for the future.”
Mike Nichols, vice president for research and development at UM, said that when the issue came to his desk the question was whether the student should be considered an employee of the university.
Professors and other university employees receive funding from UM, which entitles the school to ownership of property they create using these resources. This is common practice with many institutions, Nichols said.
However, the issue became complicated when officials factored in monetary awards for students such as fellowships or scholarships.
“We came to the conclusion that students were certainly not employees of the university,” Nichols said. "So I ruled that the students owned their intellectual property. Scholarships do not negate it.”
Nichols reasoned that if UM was going to continue to forge a "pathway to innovation” on campus, the university system needed to do its part to help move student technology to the marketplace.
“Students are some of the more inventive people out there,” Nichols said, noting that students now have more of an incentive to enter competitions and take on technology-driven projects.
Nichols said he hopes the change in policy will inspire entrepreneurial-minded recruits to focus on UM.
“If you are a talented high school graduate, why would you not choose the University of Missouri? We want to recruit the best and brightest kids in the U.S., if not the world. This applies to undergraduates and graduates,” Nichols said.
Mitchell said one potential drawback to implementing the new policy is the “small possibility that the University of Missouri could miss out on revenue that could be derived from student-generated intellectual property.”
However, she noted that the Kauffman Foundation believed that the benefits outweighed the risk. The number of potential new innovations and entrepreneurs would create a domino effect, she said, increasing the likelihood of successful products and ultimately more new firms.
“I don’t know how anybody could see a downside to this opportunity.”