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In January, 15 leading US research universities launched a joint technology licensing programme, with a view to bringing innovations to market faster. The University Technology Licensing Program LLC (UTLP) sets up a patent pool, in which universities can share certain assets from their intellectual property portfolios.

This in turn speeds up the licensing process and gives interested companies a ‘one stop shop’ for emerging technologies.

“UTLP is a creative solution to meet a long-felt need for universities and private sector actors,” said David Kappos, the former director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. “It will make the licensing of technologies much easier and more convenient, to the benefit of all participants.”

Although biopharma innovations aren’t the initial focus of the programme, which spans multiple sectors across the physical sciences, there could be important benefits for pharma further down the line.

According to GlobalData, the UTLP participating universities have a pipeline of more than 240 early stage drugs that could be out-licensed to commercial companies. Through using UTLP as a centralised licensing agent, they won’t need to spend time and resources reaching out to industry themselves.

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By GlobalData

“Collaboration combining the financial backing of commercial companies and the early-stage drugs from academic institutions is a key source of innovation, with many successful assets being developed and commercialised from out-licensing of university technology,” said Madeleine Roche, analyst at GlobalData.

Collaborations are common

It’s tempting to think about academia and industry as working in siloes – academics working on basic science, and pharma companies on getting drugs to market.

As Dr Joel Lexchin, associate professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, explains, this has been the basic template for drug discovery and commercialisation since the end of the World War II.

“The way it has been structured is that the basic research is done in academic centres, typically funded through public dollars,” he says. “And then once the basic research has been done, that information is turned over to commercial companies to refine and come up with their drug if possible.”

However, partnerships between the two sides are becoming more prevalent and many are now entering into longer-term strategic collaborations. While the specifics vary, this research may be funded through grants or contract-based agreements with a tie to intellectual property rights.

“One of the reasons why these kinds of arrangements have been set up is because there is less public money going into universities, so universities need to find alternative sources of income,” says Lexchin. “And the public money that is going in seems to be increasingly directed at the programmes developing products that can be commercialised.”

The benefits and the challenges

Done right, public-private collaborations can get lifesaving drugs to market faster, ensuring the best minds in the field are working together for the common good.

We might think of initiatives like the TB Alliance, a not-for-profit product development partnership that brings together the public, private, academic and philanthropic sectors to advance TB drug development.

Similarly, since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a wave of collaboration around vaccine development – most notably with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, in which Oxford University developed the vaccine and gave AstraZeneca sole marketing rights.

“There was also collaboration around working out the structure of the virus, which was done quite quickly,” says Lexchin. “That kind of research was open science, so that everybody could take advantage of it.”

While the benefits are clear, it’s a model that carries certain risks, particularly for academic scientists. For one thing, there may be a perception that you’ve somehow failed as a scientist if you can’t commercialise your research.

“It can mean that certain kinds of research are neglected in favour of other kinds,” says Lexchin. “In some institutions, promotion depends on how much money you bring into the university, either through grants or by virtue of the ability to sell the research that you’ve done.”

There may also be issues around when you disclose your research – if you do so before it’s patented, might other people file a patent before you get round to it?

“There is a sense that you need to keep your research sacred so that other people don’t steal it,” says Lexchin. “Similarly, if you’re working with a company, does the company has the right to read and possibly edit your publications before they appear in print?”

A third – and perhaps more troubling – concern is what happens when the academics in these collaborations attempt to speak out against a drug.

“If the product that’s being developed looks like it’s going to either not be very effective or going to have side effects, and the academics who are involved in that research starts to speak out, we need to be sure that they’re not going to be subject by the company,” says Lexchin.

From the industry’s side, there may be questions around how lucrative this collaborative venture can be. After all, academic researchers are typically not motivated by money, and the two sides may find themselves misaligned. It’s essential that they do what it takes to establish mutual trust and find their common ground.

How to get it right

As Lexchin sees it, with collaborations of this nature, it’s important to think about the end result – will the resulting innovations be broadly accessible and affordable, or will the two parties end up prioritising commercial interests at the expense of a public health good?

“A lot of times with university-industry licensing agreements, the licensing is exclusive, meaning only one company is commercialising the discoveries,” he says.

“This makes sense from the company’s point of view, because they’ll have a monopoly, and it makes sense from the academic side because they can get more money for an exclusive license. But it also may mean that access is going to be restricted and that the product may not be affordable in low and middle-income countries.”

In this instance, as in so many instances, the devil is in the details – you’d have to look at the individual deals that are being signed before you can assess the impact of the collaboration.

As for how academic-industry collaborations might be better leveraged in future, Lexchin thinks the most important factor is ensuring an equal power balance between the two sides.

“The universities have to be in a position where they’re not dependent on industry money, because in those cases the power shifts to the to the industry,” he says. “We also need to make sure that, within the academic institutions, there’s a debate around what kinds of collaboration should be acceptable and what kinds aren’t.”

Clearly, academic-industry collaboration is here to stay – and often, it can lead to a richer seam of innovation than either side could generate alone. Initiatives like the UTLP could go a long way towards ironing out some of the challenges they face along the way.