Despite Covid-19 causing worry among many in higher education over valuable revenue streams, research universities in the Triangle say their innovation and commercialization activity has never been higher.
Officials tell TBJ that not only has activity continued to thrive throughout the pandemic, the increased demand for innovation around Covid-19 has them busier than ever.
“We have not seen a downturn in the number of companies and the energy that startup founders are putting into the companies,” said Judith Cone, UNC’s vice chancellor of innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development.
One of the reasons, Cone said, is the array of patents and existing research the university has, especially with its academic medical center.
She said that “in the first few days of the pandemic,” UNC’s Office of Technology Commercialization was “inundated with requests from other researchers around the world to have access to our knowledge.”
According to a UNC report detailing its commercialization and research activity for fiscal year 2020 – which included the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic – UNC made 170 invention disclosures. It received more than $5.4 million in licensing revenue and received 49 patents from the U.S. government. It also launched three intellectual property-based startups.
Duke University reported 405 invention disclosures and $65 million in revenue. It received 98 patents and launched 17 startups in the 2020 fiscal year.
But medical research is not the only sector chugging along.
At N.C. State, Wade Fulghum, assistant vice chancellor for the offices of Research Commercialization and Research and Innovation, said the university’s textile expertise has kept innovation flowing during the pandemic – despite less than usual working conditions.
“As far as impact, we’ve been very effective at working remotely,” he said. “We’re busier … we’re busier than ever.”
For N.C. State in fiscal year 2019 – FY2020 data has not been released – the university reports 21 startup companies, made 295 invention disclosures and received 75 patents – all record highs for the university.
But even removing the innovation related to Covid-19, neither Fulghum or Cone said they’ve seen a slowdown in research and commercialization activity during the pandemic – good news for the Triangle, which benefits from the startups the region’s big three universities spawn each year.
The reason behind that, officials said, is the sheer amount of research funding that is flowing into the universities. Cone notes UNC has seen a steady incline since the early 2000s, now roping in $1.14 billion per year – making it the 12th largest research university in the country.
“Through their curiosity, inventiveness and perseverance, Carolina innovators are bringing an increasing number of discoveries that are based on intellectual property and developed in the university’s labs into the commercial market, where they advance the public good,” Cone said. “By turning their ideas and research into technologies and ventures that generate new jobs and revenue for North Carolina citizens and people around the world, our inventors make a significant economic impact, which is particularly critical during the challenging pandemic period.”