If VoCo turns out to be a successful commercial product, it will be an example of what leaders at Princeton and other universities have been trying to accomplish for decades: turning academic research into viable businesses. The technology is the result of a collaboration between Princeton University and Adobe Research Labs, which is a division of the company that pursues advanced technology by forming partnerships with academic institutions.
On Princeton’s side, the university’s Office of Technology and Licensing actively markets inventions by its faculty members, and provides support for licensing the inventions to companies or helping professors found their own startups.
The shift in university research from purely advancing human knowledge to actively seeking commercial applications goes back to 1980 when the Bayh-Dole Act made it legal for institutions to earn money by licensing patents developed in their labs.
Before that, all university research belonged to the federal government if the school received federal funding, which meant that many potentially useful inventions were never developed into products because the government did not see a use for them, or had no ability to take advantage of them.
The biggest licensing success story for Princeton, from a financial point of view, was the cancer drug Alimta, invented in a Princeton lab and commercialized into a blockbuster drug that generated $2.5 billion in sales. The university realized $524 million in royalties (a fact cited in the recently settled taxpayers’ lawsuit challenging the university’s nonprofit status).
None of which is to say that Princeton has become a corporate research lab. In most areas of research commercial applications are too far off to be immediately useful to business, and many have no money-making potential whatsoever. In recent years, only a single-digit percentage of the university’s research has been funded by corporations.
“It is not an effective way of doing business,” said Princeton’s then dean of research, A.J. Stewart Smith, in a May 29, 2013, article in U.S. 1. “The time scales are so long, and the patents that you start are very unpredictable, and there is a low probability that anyone is going to make a lot of money.”
Despite the relatively small scale of commercial-oriented research, Princeton technology has made an impact on the business world. For example, Universal Display Corporation, the Phillips Boulevard-based maker of organic LED technology, uses Princeton-developed technology to make its product that is incorporated in millions of phones and televisions every year.
Earlier this year, Princeton’s IP Accelerator Fund gave $100,000 to six new technologies, each one of which has commercial potential. The projects included a battery tester that uses sound waves to find flaws, a cybersecurity sentry that guards against hacking attacks, a laser-based system that can measure the temperature of an entire room, a way of measuring glucose without drawing blood, and a potential cure for certain cancers (U.S. 1, February 1, 2017).
“We are not just an ivory tower trying to train clones of faculty,” said Smith. “We want to have people from Princeton contributing in every possible way. Taking applications of research and commercializing them is an important goal for us.”