Industry-sponsored academic research promotes innovation, study finds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Corporate-funded academic research is more accessible and more accessed than people think, according to a team of researchers that included Zhen Lei, assistant professor of energy and environmental economics, Penn State. The researchers challenge assumptions that inventions born from industry-sponsored research are less accessible and less useful than those funded by the government or nonprofit organizations.

Lei and other researchers analyzed two decades of records relating to more than 12,000 inventions from nine University of California campuses and three affiliated national laboratories. They found that not only do corporate-sponsored inventions yield more patents and licenses than those that solely are federally funded, but they also are more highly cited in subsequent patents than those supported by federal funds. An analysis of forward-citation rates, the most widely used measurement for patent quality, showed that each industry-funded invention generated an average of 12.8 forward citations compared with 5.6 for federally sponsored inventions.

The researchers recently published their findings in the journal Nature.

While the prevailing expectation has been that industry looks to restrict access to intellectual property, the researchers found that half of the exclusive licenses for corporate-sponsored inventions went to third parties and not the sponsors. Corporate-funded inventions are also no more likely to be exclusively licensed than those solely receiving public funding. According to the University of California data, corporate-sponsored inventions were licensed exclusively 74 percent of the time, with publicly funded inventions being licensed exclusively 76 percent of the time.

“These results run counter to our expectation,” Lei said. “We thought that companies are interested in research with narrow applications and try to lock up inventions from research they sponsor, and that corporate-sponsored inventions are more likely to create fewer benefits for others and be less cited than federally funded counterparts. This did not turn out to be the case.”

The researchers suggest their findings indicate that private firms consult academic institutions for exploratory research in the hopes of finding new profit avenues. While they point out that corporate sponsorship of academic research must still be administered with due diligence, they also caution against relying on old assumptions.

“Universities setting up contracts with corporations need to be vigilant in their missions to generate and transfer knowledge,” Lei said, “but they should not assume companies are focused mainly on tying up intellectual property. Although results might differ at other academic institutions, these findings should allay concerns that corporate sponsorship turns leading universities into corporate vassals.”

Brian Wright, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, served as the paper’s lead author. Along with Lei, co-authors include Kyriakos Drivas, a postdoctoral research economist at the Agricultural University of Athens, and Stephen Merrill, executive director of Science, Technology and Economic Policy at The National Academies.

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Last Updated April 04, 2014