Increasing number of patents garners revenue, prestige for MU

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | 12:37 p.m. CST; updated 8:19 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 22, 2011

COLUMBIA — MU was issued 21 patents in the 2010 academic year, more than ever before.

Columbia entrepreneur Brian Thompson believes one day his research might be the cure for polluted rivers, lakes and streams. Until then, he waits with more than a million other inventors and researchers whose patents are pending at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


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Thompson’s enzyme research began at MU after the completion of his dissertation at Kansas State University. The researcher he worked for there was brought by MU to Columbia to increase life science research on campus. Thompson followed his boss to work at MU.

MU, and the rest of the academic research world, measures a university’s success in part by the number of patents it is issued each year.

For about the past five years, most Big 12 universities, MU included, have been issued fewer than 10 patents. Last year, MU was issued 21 patents, jumping into third place in the conference.

“Patents signify the results of the intellectual pursuits of our faculty. Patents are significant because they allow the opportunity of commercialization of research results that will benefit society,” said Chris Fender, director of the MU Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations.

The increasing resources aimed at Fender’s office benefit the university in two important ways. First, the number of patents generated contributes to the university’s prestige. They are also increasingly seen as potential revenue generators in lean budget years.

“The university has put a premium in the last few years on protecting the intellectual property of their researchers," Thompson said. MU decided that this was an area in which it was lagging behind a lot of different schools, he said.

After a patent is issued, revenue comes from licensing the research to companies or entrepreneurs such as Thompson. MU owns all of the research done on campus, so when Thompson left his position to start a business based on the research he developed at MU, he paid the university a fee.

MU received $9.5 million from licensing agreements last year. That’s an increase of nearly $7.5 million since fiscal year 2006. Even though only about 10 percent of patents will go on to generate revenue, the university has used the additional money to offset budget cuts from the state.

Thompson said that licensing agreements create a revenue stream from universities that can be used to offset budget cuts.

"The university doesn’t get hit as hard. The tuition hikes don’t have to be as high. They can help the university as a whole.”

According to Paul Bateson, a business counselor at the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Center, the licensing agreements are beneficial for MU, Columbia and entrepreneurs.

“The university is a draw when businesses are looking for places to go. There are several businesses that came to Columbia because of the proximity to the research being done here,” Bateson said.

The intentional focus on patenting more intellectual property started about four years ago. Since 2008, the Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations has grown from six employees to 11 this year. That has led to an overall increase in the number of patent applications.

"We take our job as stewards very seriously, making sure those innovations get to market and seeing they’re protected,” Fender said.

Fender said MU hopes to keep increasing the number of patents issued, especially as state funding looks uncertain. He also said he hopes to see a 5 percent to 10 percent increase each year in the number of patent applications filed and in the revenue from licensing agreements.

“You have all these Mizzou researchers making all these discoveries resulting in patents,” Thompson said. “It says, ‘Hey, this happened at the University of Missouri.’ It says we’ve reached upper echelons of research universities.”

Thompson said he hopes his patent will soon join the ranks of those issued to MU. Until then, he develops his business around his research — patent pending.

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Richard Saunders November 22, 2011 | 12:58 p.m.

Patents are the ultimate intellectual enslavement of mankind, where one person works to conceal the nature of the universe to all others, even though they too rely upon the work of those who came before them.

Simply put, EVERYTHING is a derivative, as there is no such thing as absolute originality. Try expressing a patent without language or math, for instance. Doesn't retain much value, huh?

Society would be a far better place if everyone were free to improve upon the ideas of everyone else, as evidenced by the phenomenon we know as the Internet (as opposed to controlled environment of it's largest predecessors AOL & Compuserve). The more eyeballs (and thus minds) that have access to a problem, the more likely a workable solution can be found. Mr. Thompson may have the cure to polluted rivers, but thanks to the legal minefield of "Intellectual Property" the world may never witness it, but instead merely hear of its promise.

Now, just think if our languages required royalty payments...

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 22, 2011 | 1:18 p.m.

Just for grins, I'd like to see a good discussion on why a public university should be able to patent ANYTHING.

To get us started, I'll offer this: Public universities are supported by our taxes. Any discoveries are owned by all of us.

(I ain't sayin' I agree or disagree. But I'd like input to help make up my own mind. I've pondered this issue for years with no satisfactory resolution).

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 22, 2011 | 1:53 p.m.

"Just for grins, I'd like to see a good discussion on why a public university should be able to patent ANYTHING."

Because it protects a source of revenue. As you say: "Public universities are supported by our taxes. Any discoveries are owned by all of us." Unless you want to pay higher taxes, higher tuition or, if you're a parent, both, you should view patents as a positive because they protect another source of revenue that could help universities reduce their reliance on taxes and tuition.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 22, 2011 | 2:16 p.m.

Jimmy: Expenditures of money expands to fit the availability of money. I do not agree that patent money slows increases in tuition or taxes; rather, it simply permits enhanced spending.

The original mission of land-grant universities was: (1) Teaching, (2) research, and (3) service. In that order. The explosion of patents at universities plus the associated money has reversed numbers 1 and 2, imo.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 22, 2011 | 2:17 p.m.


My experience re patents is of course in the private sector, but PERSONS are granted patents, which can then be "assigned" to corporations, universities, etc., and it will say that in the title of the patent.

Most researchers and engineers when they go to work must agree in writing to assign any patents to their employers. It can be argued that this seems unfair, but that's how it is. A counter argument can be made that if it were not for the facilities the employer provides (plus paying the employee), the object of the patent would not have materialized.

PhD candidate (he may have been awarded one by now) Steve Jung and Dr. Delbert Day, both of MS&T, have a patent or patents for borate glass nanofibers ("'cotton candy' that promotes healing," as the periodicals are billing it) but I'd be willing to bet the patent(s) is (are) assigned to MS&T.

If the situation I've noted is legally okay for the private sector, why should universities be treated differently?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 22, 2011 | 2:31 p.m.

Ellis asks, "If the situation I've noted is legally okay for the private sector, why should universities be treated differently?"

Me says: I think my questioning on this matter stems from (1) tax-payer involvement and (2) bemoaning the "loss of purity" in the original land-grand mission. Professors were special, not greedy like the rest of us.

PS: Note to self: Really nice, another thread you castigated a writer for living in an 1850s banking fantasy world, and here you are living in a fantasy university financial world. lol.

Kinda like believing sports are really amateur.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 22, 2011 | 2:43 p.m.

"Expenditures of money expands to fit the availability of money. I do not agree that patent money slows increases in tuition or taxes; rather, it simply permits enhanced spending."

There are two forces at work. MU will spend itself scarlet in an attempt to keep up with other schools, but taxpayers, students and parents are reaching the point where they don't want to give more money to MU. So MU will have to get the money from somewhere elsewhere. IP royalties are one of those somewheres.

MU's expenditures will continue growing even if the availability of money doesn't. Deans don't say, "We don't need a new building." Historically they've expected MU to get it from somewhere, but increasingly the administration is pushing back and saying, "Look for ways to monetize your research." Patents are one of those ways.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 22, 2011 | 5:58 p.m.

"...bemoaning loss of purity in the original land grant mission."

Oh, Michael, the land grant system lost its virginity long before either you or I were born! Dear old Moo U., that stellar purveyor of "agriculture and mechanic arts*," is today a worn-looking lady of easy virtue.

Let's go a bit further back in American history. What happened to Mr. Jefferson's dream of public higher education that ordinary citizens could afford?

*- Also mining and metallurgy. In Missouri there were two campuses involved in executing the federal land grant, not just one campus. That didn't happen in most states.

(Report Comment)

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