University Inventions – Europe Needs a Bayh-Dole Act

Technology transfer of new ideas and innovation from universities and research institutes into society is a major source of Europe’s “knowledge economy”. However, EU firms are struggling to better exploit public-funded research (like those from universities) and transform their findings into patents and innovations that generate growth.  Barriers to collaboration between the public and private sectors exist, in particular when it comes to sharing revenues and costs.

European law on how to deal with inventions made by university professors and whether they can be commercialized (and if so, against what conditions) is fragmented. The practices among European universities is diverse and uncoordinated. Would in the light of Europe’s ambition to be the most innovative place by 2020, a European Bayh-Dole Act be a stimulus for innovation and therefore growth of its “knowledge economy”?

The Bayh-Dole Act is a US law dealing with intellectual property arising from US federal government-funded research. Adopted in 1980, Bayh-Dole (named after the two senators that drafted this bill) gave US universities, small businesses and non-profits intellectual property control of their inventions that resulted from such funding.  Faster and stronger technology transfer was a principal argument for Bayh-Dole. Bayh-Dole permits a university, small business, or non-profit institution to get ownership of an invention in preference to the government. The US Bayh/Dole Act resulted in a strong technology transfer profession in the U.S. Such licensing programs now exceed  $1 Billion in annual royalties to universities, promoting research and further innovation. One word of caution: evidence[1] suggests that the Bayh-Dole Act itself has had little impact on the content of academic research, rather the distribution and monetization of it.

One of the aspects that should interest European politicians and universities is that the US Bayh-Dole Act provided a strong political endorsement of the argument that failure to establish patent protection over the results of federally funded university research would limit the commercial exploitation of these results. The Bayh-Dole Act was a powerful answer to a belief by policymakers (based on little or no evidence at the time) that stronger protection for the results of publicly funded R&D would accelerate their commercialization and the realization of these economic benefits by U.S. taxpayers.

In Europe we have none of that. European policy makers have so far limited themselves to subsidizing university research, but failed to make the next move, namely to ensure that knowledge, produced as a result of European tax payers money would be “clawed” back to Europe by means of patenting those results and institutionalizing the monetization practices. In Europe, the division between academia and industry is still long and deep. Historically, any potential industrial applications of scientific discoveries made within universities are still deemed public knowledge and, therefore, not protected by patents. Many European academic researchers are only hesitantly, if at all, interested in the exploitation of their research in the private sector. This view has to change. Not that there are no Bayh-Dole-like laws in Europe[2]. Several countries, among which UK, Germany, Denmark and Belgium have technology transfer legislation supporting university commercialization of publicly funded research. Those countries, though attempting to enact legislation similar in effect to the Bayh-Dole Act, were by far not of the same impact as the US counterpart.

To encourage better and more effective exploitation of university inventions we need a European Bayh-Dole Act.

This article was first published on August 7 2010 on the IPEG blog

[1] see David C. Mowery, Richard R. Nelson, Bhaven N. Sampat, and Arvids A. Ziedonis, The Effects of the Bayh-Dole Act on U.S. University Research and Technology Transfer: An Analysis of Data from Columbia University, the University of California, and Stanford University” (1998).

[2] See for a very informative study on the effects of the US Bayh-Dole Act and how this compares with Europe: Thomas J. Siepmann, “The Global Exportation of the US Bayh-Dole Act”

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