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The next great invention to change the world of medicine may come from the same professor who teaches your biology lecture.

Inventors at Penn netted the University more than $14 million in the 2011 fiscal year, a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education said.

Overall, universities earned more than $1.8 billion from commercializing research during that time period, according to data compiled by the Association of University Technology Managers.

The eight startup companies, 68 United States patents and 124 new patent applications to come from Penn last year are largely due to the work of the Center for Technology Transfer. The Center helps faculty members looking to turn their research into products secure patents and either sign license agreements with corporate partners or start their own companies for the inventions.

With several drug candidates in their late stages of development and a recently announced partnership with Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, CTT Deputy Executive Director John Swartley believes there are “huge opportunities for our scientists and support resources” ahead.

From the research lab to the clinic

Many of the inventions in the works at Penn focus on filling voids in medical technology.

In response to the lack of effective diagnostic tools for patients with epilepsy, neurology professor John Pollard developed a blood test that gives insight into the cause of recurring loss of awareness by analyzing levels of brain inflammation. When he realized the technology could be patentable, he came to CTT’s UPStart program, which helps faculty inventors launch startups and take their products onto the market.

Another UPStart company is CytoVas, founded by Emile Mohler, director of vascular medicine and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine. Collaborating with several other doctors at the Medical School, Mohler created a blood test that serves as a marker for vascular health and enables doctors to tailor their care to individual patients based on their levels of risk.

With UPStart’s help in finding a CEO and funding for the company, he hopes to commercialize the blood test and get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so that the test can be brought “out of the research lab and into the clinic.”

Both Pollard and Mohler agreed that Penn provides an ideal setting for faculty to pursue and market their inventions.

“The geographical localization of the university, of the Medical School and of the Science Center makes it much easier to do these sorts of projects here at Penn than probably many other places,” Pollard said.

Mohler added that while faculty at other universities take sabbaticals for several months in order to create inventions and start companies, Penn “provides the environment where they don’t have to do that. [They can] continue their day job and have the Center for Technology Transfer support them.”

Keeping up with the competition

The expansion of research commercialization at the university level is a relatively recent trend.

According to Swartley, all federally funded research was owned by the U.S. government until the early 1980s, until the Bayh-Dole Act, sponsored by former Sens. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) gave U.S. universities control over their inventions.

Universities benefited from the new law by raising funds for further research through turning faculty inventions into products and licensing them to companies, particularly within the pharmaceutical industry.

Although Swartley said Penn receives nearly $1 billion in research funding and the CTT processes close to 400 inventions a year, other universities are far ahead of Penn in their licensing agreement revenues. Northwestern, the University of California System and Columbia University topped the Chronicle’s list with earnings of nearly $200 million last fiscal year.

Swartley attributed this to the “blockbuster phenomenon” in which one or two drug licenses can produce multimillion-dollar annual royalties for an institution.

“It’s very hard to predict which licenses are going to produce that kind of revenue,” he said. “There is an element of luck that an institution has a hit.”

In order to keep up with other universities, Swartley believes Penn must continue pursuing partnerships with pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, particularly in its fields of expertise, like translational medicine.

These partnerships “encourage pharmaceutical industry partners to work more closely with us and support these programs with substantial resources … because we’ve integrated the process,” he said. “That is a model of the future.”

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