When several Medical School professors proposed an investment project eight years ago, Bok vetoed it. But yesterday he said the new program had several different features that answered doubts he had had about the earlier plan.
In a project made public last week, Harvard plans to solicit approximately $30 million worth of investments from outside corporations for a limited partnership called Medical Science Partners. This company will then invest in the process of making laboratory discoveries into marketable products.
"This comes from the medical faculty," Bok said. "They have observed a gap—a number of discoveries which are too far along to qualify for research grants but have not yet been picked up for commercial use. The purpose of the venture fund is to fill that gap."
The program is designed to help faculty members doing long-term research that could have commercial applications, because they often cannot obtain grant
funding to produce a tangible—rather than theoretical—product. The partnership would provide the funding and market the final product.
Bok said the plans include an independent overseeing board to approve new projects and ensure that professors participating in the program comply with certain standards of conduct approved several years ago by the medical faculty. In addition, professors will have to submit regular reports to the review board.
"Now there is a set of principles and safeguards written into this venture that was not present in the earlier arrangement," Bok said. He added that when he denied the first proposal in 1980, he said that the school should look for solutions fro the problems he outlined and that he would consider any proposal brought to him in the future.
The 1980 proposal called Harvard to invest in a company being started by a Medical School professor, while the new program does not include Harvard's money. And Harvard's profits from the new program will be earmarked for basic research, Bok said.
Bok said he met with faculty leaders from the Medical School in order to determine the likelihood of abuses of the new program, such sa the possibility of lucrative research becoming a tenure issue.
"They assured me that there was no possibility that the appointment process would be affected in any way by the fund," he said. "If it ever became a tenure issue I'd abolish it."
The proponents of the plan did not discuss the possibility of growth of the partnership in the near future, Bok said. As it now stands, the program will have only six to eight investors. He also said that he did not foresee the fund extending to professorial research in other areas of the University.
"the interface between scientists at the Medical School and pills, medical equipment and other products for curing diseases and promoting health is very much closer than the relationship between the physics department, for instance, and the world of products," Bok said.
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