Pending Patents


By Joan Voight, Illustrations by Leif Parsons

Published Jul 1, 2008 8:04 AM

Plastic sheets that power your home. Biofuel that takes the pain out of filling up. Portable kidneys. Just a normal day's work for UCLA's Office of Intellectual Property, which brings scientists and commerce together for the benefit of all of us.

While we puzzle over whether to purchase a Prius or a pickup, and if now's the time to invest in those chic energy-saving appliances, the people at UCLA's Office of Intellectual Property (OIP) are way ahead of us. Their mission of connecting UCLA researchers with industry manufacturers and investors gives them a ringside seat on our future. By marrying science and business, they are fostering innovations today that promise to turn the status quo on its ear in the next five years or so, making us more mobile and self-sufficient than we can currently imagine.

Sound like an exaggeration? Here's just a sampling:

The OIP is helping along a patented process that uses the maligned E. coli bacteria to make new biofuels for our cars that are cheaper and easier to transport than ethanol and nearly as efficient as gas. The office also is supporting plastic solar cells that we will be able to drape on our homes and elsewhere to generate all the energy we need, and maybe more. On the health front, the office is promoting portable medical treatments by spreading the word about a wearable artificial kidney patented by two UCLA professors to replace dialysis.

"We are often the first to see how research from our faculty will be impacting some of the most important parts of life," says Kathryn Atchison, vice provost of intellectual property and industrial relations and head of the OIP.

Currently 180 companies are licensing patented UCLA technology. And the trend is considerably upward: The number of firms that have optioned or licensed patented Bruin tech has grown about 20 percent a year in recent years, says Atchison. (An option agreement usually lasts a year, while a license agreement lasts up to 20 years.)

From July 2006 to June 2007, a total of 38 U.S. patents were issued to UCLA inventors and 50 new license and option agreements were signed by outside industry, according to the OIP. During that period, UCLA earned $21 million in royalties and fees for inventions developed by faculty. Of that, the inventors took home $7 million.

"In the past, scientists like me could spend 10 to 15 years on esoteric work" that stayed in the lab, says James Liao, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "It is immensely satisfying to see your work used for something directly benefiting society within your own lifetime."

UCLA's best minds have always been good at inventing technologies that impact the larger world. For instance, research patented at UCLA in the 1980s led to the familiar nicotine patch. Fast-forward to June 2007, when a cavity-fighting lollipop hit the market, thanks to Chinese herbs research by UCLA microbiologist Wenyuan Shi. Now the collaboration between academic researchers and medical, technology and energy industries is even more pressing as federal dollars that used to help pay for this research have dwindled.

Business can see a clear competitive benefit. "Our association with a key scientist is a tremendous help in our company's credibility with investors," says David Glassner, vice president of bioprocessing and engineering at Gevo, a biofuel company that is working with Liao. "The money guys want to back the first and the best."

The challenge is that professors and industry obviously come from very different environments. "It is not a natural fit," says Dina Lozofsky, vice president of IP development and strategic alliances at Solarmer, a solar product start-up, and the former director of technology commercialization at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute. "Professors' top priorities are to educate students and share their work by publishing," whereas "companies, on the other hand, want to keep their exclusive new technology secret until it hits the market." Sharing it with the world, as professors do, is the last thing they want, she says.

"Recognizing the difference in cultures between academia and the business world," explains UCLA Acting Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh '70, "UCLA moved to an academic leader under a vice provost in 2005 to increase faculty's ability to commercialize technology developed as part of their research program."

Besides making these connections, the office also offers businesses access to a valuable talent pool; companies involved with the OIP often hire UCLA grads who are already well-versed in key research.

Read on for the skinny on three Bruin breakthroughs that could rock your world — maybe sooner than you think.