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University of Pittsburgh

March 16, 2006


Oil and water do not mix. However, blending vegetable oil and water-based fluids like vinegar makes for a novel suspension that greatly enhances the flavor of salads and other foods. Yet such solutions are inherently unstable and separate rather quickly. To bind oil and vinegar together, eggs were used, thus the invention of mayonnaise. According to one story, mayonnaise was invented in 1756 to commemorate the siege of the English-held St. Philip’s Castle at the start of the Seven Years War. The castle was located in the Minorca’s capital, Mahón — hence the name “mahonnaise.”

In the world of progress, academia and industry have often been at odds, despite having similar desires to improve the nature of things and better society. Industry progresses in response to innovation. Andrew Carnegie invented a more efficient means to process iron ore and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But with few exceptions, industrial advances proceed slowly because innovation does not come often to the doors of industry.

On the other hand, universities are innovation centers; all academic faculty hold invention and advancement of ideas in the highest esteem. Yet translation of these ideas into applications is slow to non-existent, which is unfortunate because many of the ideas and innovations developed in academia would be of great use to all of society. But how do academics help their ideas reach fruition without becoming embroiled in the world of business , which cares more about profits and market share than benefit to society?

Until recently, novel findings, practical ideas and useful by-products of federally funded research were considered in the public domain. Instead of commercializing products and ideas, this altruistic ruling by the federal government actually hindered their commercial development. Why? Because no one could now patent or license these ideas and products. Without patent protection, a company’s competitor could take the final product and make it more cheaply once it was developed, thus making the initial investment in product development too expensive compared to the potential profits. In an effort to rectify this issue, in 1980 Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act allowing universities and their faculty to patent their innovations, then license them to companies to facilitate their commercial development.

However, the process of commercial development of ideas and products is far from easy. In addition, the potential impact that such commercialization activities could have on the academic stature of faculty is not understood. Clearly, what is needed is a better binder to build the mayonnaise of academia and industry. To that end, the University has established two operations. The Office of Technology Management oversees this process, aiding faculty in defining their “products” and securing external funding or company support for commercialization. In the Katz Graduate School of Business, the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence was developed to promote the interaction between regional organizations and University faculty. The two operations form a strong administrative structure to aid the faculty as they consider the pros and cons of promoting their ideas, thoughts and discoveries.

However, there are still several obstacles to this process: 1) failure of faculty to realize that their ideas and innovations on a classroom, departmental or research level are of interest to anyone outside of academia, 2) faculty fear that such activities might tarnish their academic stature and 3) an unfamiliarity with the rules and processes they must follow on the road to commercialization.

To address this fundamental problem, the University Senate is dedicating its spring plenary session to “Commercialization of Academic Innovation.” It will be held in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room March 29, 2- 5 p.m. Two keynote speakers, D. Lansing Taylor, CEO of Cellumen, Inc., and Don Smith, vice president for economic development at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, will present their views on the entrepreneurial vision of academic scientists and the potential for academic entrepreneurs, respectively. The plenary session also will feature presentations from the Office of Technology Management, the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence and several University faculty whose foray into this process has been quite real and enlightening.

The goal of this program is to help faculty and staff understand the processes by which their own innovations may realize a general application through industry. Importantly, this is a concept applicable for all faculty, not just those in the sciences. Innovation in teaching programs for undergraduates, information cataloging in libraries, learning assessment and teacher education tools all are processes whose commercialization potentially could benefit society as a whole.

It was once said that if you want people to use something you should sell it to them. If you give it to them for nothing, that is exactly what they will think of it.

The University Senate plenary session represents our attempt to show faculty the benefits of commercialization using the University’s resources both for that innovation and to make the mayonnaise. We hope that many faculty and staff from all parts of the University attend to learn more about the potential of their academic activities.

Michael R. Pinsky is vice president of the University Senate.

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