Tech is at head of class on patents

September 23, 2013

By Lee Francis, William Lineberry and Ireti Adesanya

When it comes to patents, Virginia Tech is living up to its slogan “invent the future.”

The Hokies have earned more than three-fourths of all patents issued to public colleges and universities in Virginia since 2003, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office.

The 14 state-supported universities won a total of about 1,400 patents over the past decade, according to an analysis of office’s records. Tech was the assignee on about 1,060 of those patents – 76 percent.

Tech easily outpaced the University of Virginia (15 percent) and Virginia Commonwealth University (5 percent) during that time period.

Virginia Tech ranks in the top 10 schools in the country for patents in the field of engineering, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“Virginia Tech makes a point to support research that crosses disciplines to solve problems,” Robert Walters, Tech’s vice president for research, said in a press release in response to the school’s ranking by the IEEE. “Our inventions are often the creative integration of technologies, resulting in robust products.”

Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in patenting inventions by universities, according to Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School.

In a 2008 article in the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal, he wrote: ““Universities obtained sixteen times as many patents in 2004 as in 1980.”  Lemley attributed this increase to a federal law, the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it easier for institutions of higher education and nonprofit groups to obtain patents.

Virginia universities have reflected that trend especially in recent years. Combined, their patents jumped from 114 in 2008 to 174 last year – an increase of 77 percent. (Over the same period, the number of all patents issued in the U.S. increased 49 percent, to more than 208,000 in 2012. The number of patents with at least one inventor from Virginia rose from about 1,670 in 2008 to more than 2,770 last year – a jump of 66 percent.)

Virginia Tech’s number of patents increased 88 percent, from 83 in 2008 to 156 last year. U.Va. won 22 patents in 2008 and 31 last year – an increase of 41 percent. VCU’s number of patent jumped 60 percent, from five in 2008 to eight in 2012.

Here is a sampling of patents issued and assigned to Virginia universities this year:

¶ Modular building system — Patent issued on Feb. 12 to Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc.

¶ Systems, devices and methods for interpreting movement — Patent issued on Sept. 17 to University of Virginia Patent Foundation.

¶ Method of treating traumatic brain injury — Patent issued on March 26 to Virginia Commonwealth University and Oxygen Biotherapeutics Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif.

Institutions of higher education can earn a lot of money from their patents: VCU received more than $1.8 million in licensing revenues in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the latest annual report from the VCU Tech Transfer unit.

“Patents are now a significant contributor to some university bottom lines,” Lemley said.

This article is a “Data Drop brief” — a quick-hit posting based on analysis by students in MASC 644 Computer-Assisted Reporting. The exercise involved the “Deep Web”: Using Boolean logic, class members queried the patents database and then pasted their tabulations into a Google Spreadsheet. Each student then downloaded the spreadsheet and analyzed the data with Excel.