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Tech Transfer - Open for Business (con't)Michael Morgenstern

Tech Transfer: Open for Business (continued)

Sullivan’s malaria diagnostic is just one among a diverse array of tech transfer ventures based at the Bloomberg School. They include a screening instrument for identifying aging adults at highest risk for intensive hospitalization; a set of prospective new therapies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and a series of instructional videos designed to teach doctors how to candidly acknowledge and apologize for medical errors.

Then there is the grandfather of Bloomberg School tech transfer efforts, which also happens to be the most lucrative in Johns Hopkins University history: the Adjusted Clinical Groups (ACG) System. The software package allows public health agencies, insurers and scholars to analyze and predict patterns of illness across large populations. More than two-thirds of gross royalties from ACG (which was first made commercially available in 1992) have been poured back into the Bloomberg School’s research programs.

The tech transfer process begins when a scholar files a formal disclosure of invention to the University. If the idea seems at all promising, the University then files a provisional U.S. patent application—a relatively low-cost step that posts a claim on the concept for a 12-month period. Then the waiting game commences: If a company chooses to license the invention, that company usually assumes responsibility for pursuing permanent patent protection—a process that can involve hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. But if no suitor emerges during the 12-month period, then the tech transfer office needs to decide whether to roll the dice and invest the University’s own money in permanent patent filings.

That was the dilemma that Sullivan’s urine-based malaria diagnostic faced in early 2006, 12 months after his preliminary patent application had been filed. In his case, the University decided to press forward with a permanent application, and the gamble paid off. Two years later, in 2008, Fyodor Biotechnologies licensed the technology—and agreed, as is typical in such cases, to reimburse the University for the money it had spent on patent fees.

“I’m hoping that we get the big blockbuster, for all the benefits that it would bring to our institution. We’ve come close a few times.”—Wesley D. Blakeslee

That basic pattern is common, according to Blakeslee. Roughly 70 percent of the licenses that Hopkins signs are for inventions that had been developed at least three years earlier. In 2010, Hopkins spent more than $8 million on patent filings (that figure includes the staff time of the tech transfer office’s in-house attorneys), and received $3.79 million in patent fee reimbursements from licensees.

“We push our inventions continuously,” Blakeslee says. “Today the biggest part of our job is to engage with industry to find out their needs, and when we do, we examine our entire portfolio for a fit.”

But even if a three-year wait is typical, it was still disheartening for Sullivan, who says he has seen many good public health ideas founder because they don’t fit the profit-making imperatives of the pharmaceutical industry. “Timing is everything,” he says. “If a company is not ready to pick it up, then the idea just sits there.” He says that the Hopkins tech transfer office seems to be stronger than many of its counterparts at other universities at breathing life into ideas aimed at the developing world.

Blakeslee happily concedes he daydreams about lucrative pharmaceuticals with Western markets. “I’m hoping that we get the big blockbuster, for all the benefits that it would bring to our institution,” he says. “We’ve come close a few times.” But he says his office also uses a variety of strategies to support low-profit-margin ideas like Sullivan’s. Last year, his office brought together more than 80 scholars from across Hopkins at a meeting with representatives of GlaxoSmithKline’s “Open Lab” project, a nonprofit effort to develop new drugs to treat tuberculosis and other diseases of the developing world. The University has also made a low-cost licensing deal with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative for a technology that was developed at the Bloomberg School.

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