Where the research goes: WSU aids employees with inventions, intellectual property
Feb 12, 2011 (Moscow-Pullman Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Those speaking formally about Washington State University rarely forget to mention it's a land-grant, research institution.
Mentioned less often is who conducts the research, and what happens when it's complete.
The intellectual property, including any research, ideas, inventions and expressions of graduate students and employees is handled largely the same as other similar institutions -- it belongs to WSU, Dean of Research and Graduate Studies Howard Grimes said.
One difference, however, is that inventions from the classroom are not owned by the university.
Grimes said another difference is that WSU is "aggressive" when trying to get intellectual property marketed, more so than other universities. He said it's an important stage of a faculty member's career when research becomes useful and tangible to society by being converted into something people use and consume.
WSU faculty and researchers have received more than a 40 percent increase in the amount of outside research and other grant funding awarded to the university over the past two fiscal years. Grant awards for fiscal year 2009-2010 set a record of more than $218 million.
Sometimes, this money goes to projects that receive media attention. But often, researchers go relatively unknown.
Research conducted at WSU by its employees, including graduate students, can end up as a patented product.
Long and winding process
While Moscow patent lawyer Duncan Palmatier doesn't take court cases in the area, he said he's filed patent applications many times.
"I've represented oodles of inventors in Moscow," he said, many of whom make products pertaining to trailers and weapons.
The process takes two to three years, said Palmatier.
It costs about $500 for an individual to apply for a patent, and the cost is greater for large companies. Applications are sent to the Patent Office in Alexandria, Va., and are assigned to an examiner.
Palmatier said the examiner has knowledge in the product's area and tries to find a similar patent. The examiner investigates if the product could be disqualified for a number of reasons.
One is if it could be made from two other patented products combined.
Other grounds for rejection are if the product is trivial, obvious or not original.
After the patent is awarded, the inventor pays around $1,000, and the patent is good for 20 years.
For WSU, the process is similar but the cost is much higher.
Keith Jones, director of the WSU Research Foundation, said they don't pursue patents without knowing there's a commercial interest. The university files 10 to 20 applications annually. The fees range between $5,000 and $15,000 to apply, and about the same amount to have a U.S. patent issued.
Filing a global patent costs about $100,000.
WSU returns 100 percent of all profit directly to the inventors up to $10,000. Profit from $10,001 to $200,000 is split 50-50 between WSU and the inventors. Any profit over $200,000 is split 75-25 between WSU and the inventors.
Jones said one WSU professor is on the path to commercialization with his invention, but he's not sure what the path looks like yet.
Path to a patent
Chemical Engineering professor Bernard Van Wie has been working on a teaching tool for students since 1997.
He recently received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand development and use of a desktop learning module.
The desktop learning module is clear, allowing chemical engineering students to see the concepts they're learning about instead of just hearing about them during lectures. They are a one-foot cube and are used alongside lectures in classrooms.
"The beauty of it is that ... (it) allows the student to see the insides of (in this instance) the heat exchanger and do these measurements," Van Wie said. "Normally they don't get to see that."
He said it's not patented yet, but it has potential to be marketable.
With the new grant, researchers will expand use of the DLM from its initial testing in a chemical engineering class into a variety of engineering classrooms, including civil, mechanical, bio- and electrical engineering. In chemical engineering, the researchers will be trying out the DLM in thermodynamics and in a senior laboratory.
The unit has been used and tested in five other institutions, and researchers hope to begin working with industry partners to produce a commercial product.
It helps users design a pump by displaying how much friction is passed between two pipes -- one has cooler liquid, and the other is warmer liquid. The important part for students to know is how much heat is transferred to change the temperature of the liquids, although they never touch.
The unit has interchangeable parts that be can easily configured for quick classroom activities.
Van Wie said he has three other patents under his belt, but they don't exactly bring fame and fortune.
"You might be known for (your patents)," he said. "Rich and famous, not so much."
Information about WSU's patenting process can be found on the Research Foundation's website at www.wsurf.org.
Kelsey Husky can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 237, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @DNKelseyHusky.
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