Schools Set Out Licensing Rules

Harvard and 11 other institutions released a set of guidelines for how universities license technology to companies for commercial use, calling for agreements that would make inventions benefiting the developing world more affordable.

The practice, known as technology transfer, involves universities selling the rights to market a technology invented through academic research to a private entity.

The white paper, released Wednesday, urged academic institutions to consider crafting licensing agreements that make inventions that benefit impoverished populations, particularly in the developing world, less expensive. The points also stipulated that universities strive to prevent agreements from stopping research at other not-for-profit institutions,

“If these nine points are widely adopted, the academic scientific community, commercial world, and, most important, the public will benefit,” University Provost Steven E. Hyman said in an e-mailed statement.

Technology transfers have come under fire for allegedly putting not-for-profit universities in the position of pursuing research for financial gain. The skeptics include Interim University President Derek C. Bok, who addressed the practice in his 2003 book “Universities in the Marketplace.”

“Unfortunately, in their zeal to bring more revenue to their universities, technology transfer officers have occasionally acted...in ways that threaten to slow progress rather than promote it,” he wrote.

But the white paper’s supporters say it will facilitate the process by which inventions in the academic world create tangible changes in the real one.

“The emphasis here is on getting inventions out to the world, where they can do some good,” Harvard spokesman B. D. Colen said. “It’s not on licensing per se to generate revenues.”

One of the main proponents of the white paper said it was drafted in response to several layers of criticism.

“Tech licensing has been under attack from two different sides—those who think that the universities have gotten too close to the corporate world...and on the other side you have companies complaining that it’s too hard to interact with the university,” said Stanford’s former dean of research, Arthur Bienenstock, who organized the meeting that led to the white paper.

The paper says that many of the policy suggestions are already being practiced by technology transfer officers across the country. But Anthony A. del Campo, vice president of research and technology ventures at the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, saw another reason for the universities to put together the guidelines.

“It seems to me that what these nine points are is more of a public policy outreach kind of thing, that they make sure that the public understands that they’re behaving properly,” del Campo said.

Harvard’s affiliate institutions, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, conduct separate technology transfer agreements because they are financially independent entities.

Caltech, Cornell, MIT, Stanford, the University of California, the University of Illinois-Chicago and Urbana Champaign, the University of Washington, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Yale University, and the Association of American Medical Colleges also endorsed the document.

—Laurence H. M. Holland contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.