U of M seeks more revenue from inventions

Kevin Groenke
Kevin Groenke designed the Umod desk for architectural students at the University of Minnesota. Now the desk is being marketed for use by other colleges. The U of M hopes inventions by its staff and faculty brings more money to the U in coming years.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The University of Minnesota made nearly $84 million in revenue from technologies and inventions created by its employees last year, but a big chunk of that revenue will soon disappear when royalty payments stop on an AIDS drug developed at the school.

University officials are pushing staff and faculty to create more marketable inventions to replace some of that revenue.

A few years ago the University of Minnesota's College of Design went shopping for desks.

The school needed a few hundred for its architecture students, but the desks on the market didn't quite fit students' needs.

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Architectural study requires lots of space to build models, and places to store tools and other materials.

Kevin Groenke, a furniture designer who runs the workshop at the college, thought he could do better.

"So the desk became the challenge of designing a flexible, versatile workspace that allowed that variety of different working modes."

After a few prototypes, Groenke came up with a one piece desk and storage system called Umod. "Modulate, modify, modular," he said.

The Umod desk is constructed of black steel and has a wooden work surface. Rising from its back is a system of cross bars, like a steel ladder, giving students a place to hang shelves.

"They simply have a hook on them and a bracket and they hang on the desk," Groenke said. "They can be easily moved either horizontally or vertically."

The University of Minnesota patented the Umod and is now marketing the desk to other colleges.

Schools in Iowa, Missouri and Montana have bought licenses to build the desks for their own students. So far, that's resulted in about $30,000 in revenue.

A third of it goes to the College of Design, a third goes to the university, and a third goes to the inventor.

Umod desk
The Umod desk was developed at the University of Minnesota. Its modular design helps students personalize their workplace. The desk is being marketed to other colleges.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

For Kevin Groenke, it's a nice bonus of about $10,000.

For the university, it adds a small amount to the millions of dollars that come in every year from its employees' inventions.

"In a time of shrinking state support and other resources that represents a very valuable asset for the university," said Tim Mulcahy, the university's vice president for research.

Mulcahy said the school sees healthy results from the inventions its moved to market. Recently it ranked 6th among research universities in annual licensing revenue.

"The good news is we have $80 million plus coming in in the last year," he said. "The bad news is we know that's going to rapidly decline."

That's because 95 percent of the dollars the university receives through technology commercialization, as it's called, are royalties from the worldwide sales of Ziagen, an AIDS drug. The university owns the patent on the drug.

That patent runs out in a few years, meaning the university will lose tens of millions of dollars in revenue. That's money used to fund research and grad student fellowships.

With that in mind Mulcahy is encouraging university employees to come forward with more inventions, whether they're pharmaceuticals, medical instruments, software, or something like the Umod desk.

And he wants the university to do a better job of marketing and making money from those discoveries.

"What we as an institution need figure out how to do is create a fertile environment that will help us recognize and identify another blockbuster and take full advantage of it," he said.

The University of Minnesota isn't alone, research universities across the country are on the lookout for the next blockbuster discovery.

Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, an organization interested in entrepreneurship, said he. thinks universities should work to foster more innovations from their employees.

"The challenge for the country is to find a way to encourage universities to do an even more productive and accelerated job in getting the innovations developed by the faculty into the marketplace," he said.

Liten said colleges could increase their productivity by allowing employees to work with outside groups on marketing their inventions, while still sharing the revenue with their school.

How colleges profit from new discoveries could also depend on an upcoming Supreme Court decision.

The court is currently reviewing a law that gives universities the right to patents that come from federally funded research at their schools.

The court is expected to rule on the case in June.