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At USF, there's a place for inventors

Published: August 28, 2009 Updated: July 9, 2013 at 03:21 PM
Consider the medication you took this morning or the seat belt buckle in your car or even the plastic case that holds your favorite CD.Each started with a unique idea that earned the inventor a patent from the government, meaning no one else could make money as the product's creator.Researchers at the University of South Florida hold more than 400 patents out of 7 million in the United States.They have found new ways to treat diabetes, track changes in ocean waters and peer into the human eye.They need more recognition, USF officials say, so the university has created a new society and trademarked its name, the USF Academy of Inventors.The members don't wear special robes or have their portraits displayed across campus.But they are changing the world, said researcher and professor Paul Sanberg, who came up with the idea."These are people who have reached a different step," he said. "They aren't only scholars. They are inventors. They've actually thought about how to translate their research into something that benefits society."It's not all miracle work. Researcher and professor Huntington Potter patented ways to detect and treat Alzheimer's disease.He also invented a suitcase handle that allows travelers to tilt the bag so it can go up stairs without scraping."This is all about creative people," said John Fraser, director of technology transfer at Florida State University, which keeps count of university patents statewide.People dream up ideas every day, he said, but getting a patent - and the U.S. government's protection - is something else.First, the design or method must be novel, like nothing else patented or produced before.It could be a novel improvement on an old design. But it must be what patent officials call "nonobvious." It can't be something that anyone might think up.Product potential importantAt USF, even if it's novel and not obvious, it must also have the potential to become an actual product before the university will get behind a researcher's patent application."There are some silly things out there," said Valerie McDevitt, USF's assistant vice president of patents and licensing.A 5-year-old from Minnesota whose father was a patent attorney got a patent in 2002 for a particular way of swinging on a swing.Even with high-minded standards, patent applications from Florida's universities soared from 254 in 2000 to 803 in 2007.Success, however, didn't come on the same scale. The government issued 108 patents to those same institutions in 2000 and 171 in 2007.USF researchers received 36 patents last year.While it can take years to get a patent and everyone celebrates success, "it's just a piece of paper until a company develops a product," Fraser said.A private company that licenses a patent can bring millions to a university.FSU had a blockbuster with the cancer drug Taxol, which took decades to develop.The peak year was 2000, when Taxol royalties topped $65 million. But they have fallen since then, mostly because of competition from generic manufacturers.From 2004 to 2008, USF has brought in $8.6 million in licensing revenue.If USF is associated with one of its researchers' patents, it receives 45 percent of the licensing revenue. Another 45 percent goes to the inventors, and 10 percent goes into an account that the inventors can use for university research.Of the 19 companies in the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, based at USF, seven owe their start to USF researcher patents. They include Saneron CCEL Therapeutics, which Paul Sanberg founded.Among Sanberg's 28 patents are ways to take cells from human cord blood and bone marrow to repair brain and spinal cord damage.Researcher Luis Garcia-Rubio, a professor in the College of Marine Science, founded Claro Scientific with his novel way of using light to test blood for diseases.He shares one of his patents with company co-founder German Leparc, who is chief medical officer of Florida Blood Services.In partnership with Tampa General Hospital and Florida Blood Services, they are trying to develop a way of testing blood that takes only minutes, compared with the hours or days a traditional blood test can take.David Fries, also a marine science professor at USF, said he used the "lowly circuit board" to create a device to measure the saltiness of ocean water.The piece of equipment that most people use to test salinity costs about $4,000. Fries' invention, one of 23 patents, costs about one-third that amount, which means the research institution can buy more, put more in the water and get a lot more data.This matters, Fries said, because salinity changes are tied to many events, ranging from climate changes to fish movements.Small innovation, big differencePeople do not realize how a small innovation can make a big difference, but USF's Academy of Inventors could change that, Fries said.Sanberg said he plans to bring the inventors together to talk about innovation and work with people out in the community.In addition to forming the Academy, USF's Office of Research & Innovation will edit a national journal that will be called Technology & Innovation - Proceedings of the Academy of Inventors."The competitiveness of this country and innovation is our core strength," Fries said."These inventions affect people's lives - hip replacements, implantables. ... Making people more aware of what's going on makes them more likely to support it politically and to maybe send their sons and daughters into those science classes," Fries said.