The UMass system was becoming a very big player in the biosciences market even before the state and federal governments pumped in over $100 million during the last year for life science facilities for the state university. That input included $95 million for labs at the Amherst campus and $5.5 million for the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, a facility in Springfield that’s a joint venture between UMass and Baystate Health Systems.
But what does the university get in return for what it puts into research, including research that leads to lucrative patents and big profits for private companies?
The question is important for any university, but particularly for a public university in a time when education is becoming less and less affordable.
On the whole, however, the indications are that the UMass system’s returns on investment compare very well with those of other universities, including prestigious private schools. The most recent rankings from the Chronicle of Higher Education show UMass in 11th place on a list of 26 universities with the highest rates of licensing revenue realized from investment in research from 1991 through 2011; by comparison, Yale placed 24th and MIT 26th.
UMass averaged $79,732 for each $1 million spent. The calculation was based on data compiled by the Association of University Technology Managers. More recent short-term data can be viewed in the chart below, from AUTM’s 2012 survey.
Just one example of the success of UMass’s investments is the announcement last month that Seahorse Bioscience of Billerica, which has a design and manufacturing plant in Chicopee, was on the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest-growing private companies. Among other things, Seahorse makes an analytical instrument, the Seahorse Xfe Analyzer, that measures the way cancer cells metabolize and helps explain what makes tumors resistant to therapy. Seahorse has offices in Copenhagen and Shanghai.
Last year, Seahorse licensed a patent for a tool that measures the way cells create and use energy that was developed in a laboratory at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute with the participation of Dr. Alejandro Heuck, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UMass-Amherst.
More success stories: In 2010, Massbiologics, a company connected with the UMass Medical School, sold a patented vaccine that protects babies against diphtheria and tetanus to pharmaceutical giant Merck. And an exceptionally profitable source of royalty income for the UMass system has been another Massbiologics product, Synagis, an antibody that prevents respiratory syncytial virus in infants and is marketed by AstraZeneca.
“This is a really bad condition that infants get, and the Massbiologics group came up with an effective therapy, and that therapy is sold all over the world,” Fred Rinehart, Director of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property at UMass-Amherst, told the Advocate. “The medical school gets a royalty stream.”
Rineheart said that what makes the difference between universities that get good returns from research and those whose research investments perform less well is not so much the universities’ intellectual property management practices, which, he says, are fairly well standardized between institutions. Rather, it’s most often a few lucrative patents, or just one.
Without a large royalty stream like the one that comes from Synagis, he said, “... you’d see the campuses getting hardly enough to cover the expenses of patenting and the offices of the professionals we need to do this work. If you look at the top 10 universities in terms of royalties, it’s because they had some important therapeutic that saves lives and is sold everywhere.”•