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

Tech Transfer: Open for Business (continued)

One way for public health scholars to cope with economic constraints is to be more strategic about their research programs, according to Douglass B. Given, a biotechnology investor who serves on the Bloomberg School’s Health Advisory Board. Given believes that scholars at Hopkins and elsewhere should be more aggressive about finding venture capitalists and philanthropic partners to support the commercialization of new treatments for neglected diseases.

The key, Given says, is to spot emerging waves of research financing—say, a new international anti-tuberculosis campaign, or surging interest in particular kinds of recombinant gene technology—and to concentrate an entire academic department’s resources on those themes. “You need to think about where the government funding is and where the school’s strengths lie,” says Given. “If you don’t use those kinds of strategies and screens when you hire faculty members, then you can wind up in a funding no-man’s-land.”

Biswal, the inflammatory disease researcher, says that the tech transfer climate at Johns Hopkins has “radically improved” since he first dipped his toes in the water seven years ago, but he believes much more can be done. One element that he does praise is the Bloomberg School’s program of seed grants for new tech transfer ventures. The School now awards up to three $50,000 grants each year for scholars who want to develop a business plan or to file patent applications. Biswal has won two of those grants, and he says that his Cureveda venture would have been impossible without that initial support. The grants allowed him and his colleagues to develop an infrastructure and to hire a chief executive officer, he says—and it was only after that foundation was in place that larger pharmaceutical companies began to knock on his door. (Cureveda now has a three-year research and development contract with GlaxoSmithKline.)

In the rare cases when university inventions lead to lucrative products and services, they can generate substantial streams of revenue. Under the terms of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, the federal law that established the modern day template for commercializing academic research, universities must reinvest their licensing payments and royalties in their research programs. At Johns Hopkins, those revenues are generally allocated as follows: 35 percent to the inventor, 15 percent to the inventor’s laboratory, 15 percent to the inventor’s department, 30 percent to the inventor’s school and 5 percent to the University as a whole.

ACG, for example, has brought revenue to the Department of Health Policy and Management—where one of its primary creators, Jonathan P. Weiner, DrPH ’81, MS, is based—and to the School. Most of this revenue comes from insurance companies and public health systems in more than a dozen nations—including the Medicaid programs of 15 U.S. states and systems in Canada, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom—that use ACG’s software to analyze patterns of health care delivery and costs. But Weiner emphasizes that the system is also available to academic researchers at low or no cost. “We’ve developed a huge research and development program out of this,” he says. “It’s not just about industry.”

Weiner believes he and his colleagues struck the optimal balance: They kept the ACG venture under the Hopkins roof rather than simply selling it to an external company. “Sometimes academics start a company or sell their patent,” he says, “but then that company is gobbled up seven times over and the project all but disappears.” By keeping ACG in-house, Weiner says, his team has been able to maintain the concept’s quality through nine or 10 iterations.

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