National Science Foundation study: Iowa State a technology licensing 'powerhouse'

AMES, Iowa -- A new report supported by the National Science Foundation identifies Iowa State University as a model of economic development activity.

The report includes a case study of Iowa State's efforts to transfer technologies developed on campus to start-up companies and existing businesses. The study made special note of Iowa State's record of licensing university-developed technologies to companies, calling the university a "licensing powerhouse."

The report noted that the Iowa State University Research Foundation executed 218 licenses in the year ending June 30, 2005. That was second in the country behind the University of California system.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment considering the University of California system has about $3 billion in research expenditures compared to ISU's $210 million," the case study said.

The study also noted Iowa State's total of 745 active licenses ranks sixth in the country. And the five start-up companies Iowa State launched in fiscal year 2005 ranked 22nd nationally.

"We work very hard at economic development on this campus," said John Brighton, Iowa State's vice president for research and economic development. "It is a university priority to translate university discoveries into viable technologies and products that strengthen the economies of the state and the world. We're glad to see our efforts are being held up as an example for other campuses."

The report, "Technology Transfer and Commercialization Partnerships," was prepared by Innovation Associates Inc. of Reston, Va. The company specializes in technology-based economic development.

Report author Diane Palmintera worked with a national advisory committee to identify and study successful technology transfer programs at schools that did not have top 50 research and development budgets.

"Despite geographic challenges and relatively modest research expenditures, universities such as Iowa State University, Brigham Young University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of Akron have succeeded in licensing innovations and forming start-ups," the report said. "In 2005, Iowa State University executed more licenses than any U.S. university except one, ranking well above universities that had research expenditures many times higher."

The report said Iowa State has six technology transfer lessons for other universities:

  • Develop close ties between researchers and the technology transfer office so projects with commercial potential are recognized early. That helps to protect intellectual property and market discoveries.
  • Coordinate offices that handle technology transfer, entrepreneurship, business incubators and research parks. That can help start-up companies develop and advance.
  • Make economic development a core goal of the university. That promotes technology transfer and can focus university efforts on launching start-ups.
  • Use royalty income from inventions to attract top research faculty. From fiscal years 1999 to 2005, the Iowa State University Research Foundation provided $4.5 million in royalty income to hire research faculty. Those faculty members attracted nearly $60 million in additional research funding.
  • Provide seed grants to move research to commercial stages. The funding can be particularly useful in rural states without a lot of venture capital.
  • Recognize that industry influence on research can be a double-edged sword. While it can encourage universities to address real needs, it can also move universities away from basic research that could yield new discoveries.

Kenneth Kirkland, the executive director of the Iowa State University Research Foundation and the director of Iowa State's Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, offered one other lesson to the report's authors.

"We consider our office a service arm of the university," he said in the case study. "We don't focus on the income but instead focus on businesses getting access to (ISU) technologies."