Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Patent for success

Wisconsin has healthier milk and rat poison. Stanford has DNA and DSL.

Northwestern has automobile-assembling robots.

But if Indrani Mukharji, director of NU’s Technology Transfer Program, has her way, the university won’t be at the back of the pack for long.

When Mukharji arrived in 1995, NU’s Tech Transfer program employed one person. The office wasn’t even on the same radar screen as similar programs at other universities.

“There were NU patents that date back to the ’70s, but it was fragmented,” said Mukharji, who directs the program that helps NU faculty and students patent their research. “It was not a strong program.”

Seven years later, the program has advanced from an in-debt mess of backlogged paperwork to self-supporting machine. The office now employs nine people and not only covers all of its costs but also gives back to NU.

“In the last seven years, we brought to NU (revenue) in excess of $10 million,” Mukharji said.

The office also has increased dramatically the number of patent proposals it entertains each year. In 1990, the office considered about 25 proposals. In 2000, the office saw 115.

“What we are trying to accomplish is eventually to create Northwestern as a center of innovation that would attract the best students and faculty, to have new products on the market that will come out of Northwestern technology,” she said.

GETTING INTO THE GAME

NU’s late start in the competitive field of patenting means more experienced schools have given Mukharji an array of program structures to observe and imitate. California and Massachusetts are thought of as leaders in the race to create and protect ideas, but Mukharji said she would like to change that.

“It would be nice to have something in the Midwest, and it would also be nice to have something other than Wisconsin that people could talk about,” she said.

Wisconsin’s program, however, has earned its fame. Founded in 1925, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – is the oldest technology transfer program in the country. The program gives an estimated $35 million back to the university each year, said Bryan Renk, Wisconsin’s director of patents and licensing.

“The research administration considers our monies critical,” Renk said. “It helps them get ahead on their federal grant process.”

The program began at Wisconsin after a faculty member discovered the process for creating Vitamin D in milk with the use of ultraviolet light, Renk said. Since then, the university has seen lucrative patents on items such as rat poison, MRI technology, a famous blood thinner and human embryonic stem cells, he said.

At Stanford University, the 1974 discovery of recombinant DNA – known to scientists under the Cohen-Boyer patent – began a string of years in which the university received millions of dollars for its findings. In fiscal year 2001, the school’s Office of Technology Licensing brought in $41 million.

“That’s like winning the lottery, that patent,” said Shawn Harlin, assistant to the Stanford office’s director.

SMALL STEPS, BIG DREAMS

NU has had its own successes, albeit ones that have not yet brought the big check home.

About seven years ago, mechanical engineering Prof. Michael Peshkin worked with then-masters’ student Julio Santos-Munn

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Patent for success