University patents put to good use

7 March 2014

Patents developed by Dutch researchers are being put to good use. Two thirds are sold or licensed to commercial enterprises. University technology transfer offices (TTOs) play a vital role in this, but they could be doing more to identify patentable ideas. National TTOs would benefit those fields of research in which the Netherlands excels.

At the request of the Dutch State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, a committee set up by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU), and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has surveyed the utilisation of patents on the results of scientific research conducted at universities and research institutes. The survey report, entitled Benutting van octrooien op resultaten van wetenschappelijk onderzoek, was presented to the State Secretary, Sander Dekker, on 7 March 2014.

Patents only one aspect of valorisation

The committee emphasised in its conclusions that valorisation involves much more than filing and managing patents. Worldwide, universities only derive a small percentage of their research budget from patents, and in fact that should not be their primary aim. What is most important is for knowledge to be shared, for example with commercial enterprises, which can invest venture capital in efforts to develop new products or services.

Universities in the Netherlands filed an annual average of thirty patents each between 2000 and 2010, with major variations between them. This figure is comparable to that of other European and US universities. More than two thirds of Dutch patents are put to direct use either by selling or licensing them to companies, or in the form of spin-offs.

Technology transfer offices

Technology transfer offices (TTOs) at universities and research institutes play a vital role in tracking and transferring patents to interested parties in the commercial market. The universities and research institutes generally manage to cover the cost of their TTOs with their patent-related earnings, but the profit margin is never much higher for most, not even in other countries. Although patents are money-earners for a chosen few, any financial returns usually go to the private sector, which makes the investment and bears the risk of development and sales. For universities and research institutes, patents are valuable mainly because they allow them to work closely with innovative companies.

Improving valorisation

By continuing to improve the quality of the TTOs and raising awareness among researchers, universities and research institutes will be able to identify more patentable inventions and boost the quality of the patents themselves. This is something that they will need to tackle. The number of patents filed should not be the ultimate target, however. Transfer is not always feasible, and valorisation can be achieved in many other ways.

National TTOs similar to those developed abroad would be beneficial in various fields of research in which the Netherland excels and which have strong international markets, for example in the medical sector. The national TTOs and the TTOs at universities and research institutes could work together on ensuring that better use is made of their patents.

Survey

The survey mainly involved a quantitative analysis of the number of patents filed in recent years. The data came from research conducted by the Netherlands Patent Office, the Rathenau Institute, and MERIT. In addition, the researchers interviewed thirty experts and used their comments to analyse the interaction between universities, research institutes and businesses.

A PDF (Dutch) of the report Benutting van octrooien op resultaten van wetenschappelijk onderzoek can be found on the Academy website. A summary in English is also available.