When UNC Charlotte researchers make a discovery with possible commercial application, a first step is to properly identify and protect the discovery as valuable intellectual property. The Office of Technology Transfer guides researchers through the process for bringing new technology and innovation to market, including applying for patents.
Consistently ranked among the top five “tech transfer” departments per research dollar nationwide as well as in the top 50 overall, the Office of Technology Transfer at UNC Charlotte takes seriously its mission to make accessible the benefits of scientific breakthroughs to people who need them. Executive Director Carl Mahler discusses the concept of technology transfer and its role in the research process at UNC Charlotte.
Q: What exactly is tech transfer and why should people know about it?
Universities conduct millions of dollars worth of research each year. It’s only been a few decades that they added departments with the expertise to move the results of that research from academia to places it can actually help society. There’s a misperception that the purpose of tech transfer is to make money. Our mission really is to make it possible for research to benefit the world.
People might be interested to know that UNC Charlotte forms more companies for each dollar spent on research than almost every other university in the country. This means more jobs are created locally.
Q: Explain the importance of tech transfer to UNC Charlotte as a growing research university, and how our approach differs from that of similar institutions?
Some universities try to get every dollar possible from licensing inventions to companies. At UNC Charlotte, the administration understands that leveraging inventions to promote sponsorship for research is more valuable than merely generating licensing income. Our priority is to build relationships with sponsors, particularly corporations. As a result, the proportion of our research funding from for-profit companies—some years as high as 20 percent—is greater than that of other universities, which typically runs 3 to 5 percent. This helps our commercialization efforts because the work our researchers do often has direct applicability to the problems faced by businesses and the consumers they serve.
Q: What is important for researchers to know about tech transfer that might be new to them?
Many researchers don’t realize that discussing their inventions with people outside the University before filing a patent application will result in losing the right to patent the invention outside the United States. Our office is set up to get patent protection quickly and inexpensively through something called a “provisional application for patent.” If researchers spend a little time with us before sharing information about an invention, they can discuss it without losing patent rights.
Also, sometimes researchers assume that because something they come up with is “obvious to them,” it’s not possible to patent it. The legal standard for getting a patent is that an invention must not be obvious “to a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art.” But here’s the thing: Our researchers are people of extraordinary skill; some are thought-leaders in their fields. I tell them, “You are probably the least qualified to determine whether an invention is obvious to someone of ordinary skill, so tell us about it first.”
Q: Can you share an example of University-based research that is making a difference to people as a result of a positive experience with tech transfer?
We worked with Dr. Pinku Mukherjee before she arrived at UNC Charlotte from Mayo Clinic, establishing agreements so she could bring her research materials here with as little interruption as possible to her cancer research work. We also worked with Dr. Mukherjee to protect her inventions quickly so that she could discuss them at conferences with other researchers, enabling the development of the worldwide patent portfolio that now protects her antibodies in Australia, Europe, India, Japan, Korea and elsewhere.
In her lab, Dr. Mukherjee’s research uncovered an antibody that is extremely specific in detecting a tumor marker in the blood of cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients. The breakthrough laid the groundwork for the development of a commercial blood test that allows health care professionals to detect certain cancers in its early stages when it is easier to treat. Working with the Office of Technology Transfer, Dr. Mukherjee was able to secure a patent for the antibody, which provided the basis for a startup company that is bringing her research to patient care.