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A 40-year-old law continues to produce new jobs today

By Robin Rasor - Guest Columnist | Nov 17, 2020

This fall, tens of millions of Americans will get vaccinated against influenza — but they won’t all experience a prick in the arm. Instead, many will take FluMist, the painless nasal flu vaccine.

FluMist is just one of many breakthrough innovations that originated at the University of Michigan, where I served as Managing Director of Licensing within the Office of Tech Transfer for over a decade. I now serve as Executive Director of Duke University’s Office of Licensing & Ventures which has a similar portfolio of innovations including Krystexxa, a treatment for refractory gout.

Over my many years at three universities, I’ve seen countless, life-changing discoveries come out of university research labs, the majority of them resulting from federal funding. But these research discoveries would have never made it off of college campuses if it weren’t for bipartisan legislation passed 40 years ago — the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act enables universities, non-profits, and other publicly-funded institutions to patent their discoveries — and license those patents to private companies. Before it became law, the government retained the patents on all taxpayer-funded research. Much of it never saw the light of day.

Bayh-Dole is based on a simple insight: Universities excel at basic research, but they lack the resources and expertise to turn those discoveries into functioning products. Private companies, on the other hand, are willing to take big risks — but they’re not well suited to perform extremely early-stage research.

The law’s architects, Senators Birch Bayh (D-IN) and Bob Dole (R-KS), realized that it’s far more efficient for universities to partner with the private sector to further develop and commercialize new inventions.

By harnessing the creativity of research institutions alongside the capital and innovative know-how of the private sector, Bayh-Dole has fueled decades of job-creation and entrepreneurship. Since 1996, the practice of licensing academic inventions to the private sector has supported up to 5.9 million jobs and generated up to $1.7 trillion in economic output. Bayh-Dole is also responsible for some 13,000 start-ups, by one estimate.

The law has also been a boon for American workers. It has created new positions at startups and existing companies that license university technologies. Economists are quick to point out these opportunities, but sometimes overlook an entirely new profession spurred by Bayh-Dole: my own, that of technology transfer specialist.

I’ve worked in the tech transfer field for over three decades, helping university researchers license their discoveries to the private sector. However, when I was in college and graduate school, the tech transfer profession didn’t even exist.

Now universities employ thousands of professionals like me and the tech transfer profession, and related careers, is poised to grow in the years ahead. In fact, many top universities, including Duke, offer technology-transfer fellowships for graduate students to provide them with on-the-job experience in this burgeoning field.

The Bayh-Dole Act also fosters a vibrant biopharmaceutical sector that directly employs over 800,000 Americans while supporting more than 4 million jobs indirectly. Direct biopharmaceutical industry jobs, on average, pay twice as much as other private sector jobs.

At a time when our country needs economic dynamism more than ever, we should do everything in our power to encourage risk-taking and innovation. Thankfully, the Bayh-Dole Act exists to help us do just that. And, I for one, am thankful for a wonderfully fulfilling career that I might not have had otherwise.

Robin Rasor is executive director of the Duke University Licensing & Ventures Office.

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