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Tech Transfer Growing in Illinois Universities

Research activity at Illinois universities increasingly contributes to economic growth in the state. In the past much university research focused less on marketability and more on general principles, but in the last ten years, universities across the state and nation have intensified the transfer of research from theory into tangible products with commercial value.

The August edition of the Illinois Innovation Index measures technology transfer at Illinois universities through three metrics: patent output, licensing, and business startups based on university research. The numbers show a mixed story for tech transfer in the state. While the state witnessed growth in some important innovation indicators, other states' academic institutions continue to outperform those in Illinois. As emphasized in GO TO 2040, this technology transfer process is an essential ingredient for regional economic growth. (To get a better sense of the impact of university research on economic growth, see the Illinois Innovation Index for December 2011 on R&D).

Patent output
In the past decade, the number of patents awarded per year to Illinois academic institutions nearly doubled -- which is a positive sign for the state and one of the fastest growth rates in the nation. Although this is a significant increase, Illinois still ranks behind not only leading innovative states like California and Massachusetts, but also behind Midwestern neighbors Michigan and Wisconsin on a per capita basis. Overall, Illinois had the eighth highest patent output per 1,000 science and engineering doctorates in academia.

Technology licensing
According to the Index, Illinois licenses more university technologies than a decade ago, though the growth in licensing has been much slower than the state's growth in patent output. The Index is not a comprehensive summary of all licensing activities in the state, however, because it does not include licensing data from the University of Chicago. (The school did not report licensing numbers to the major technology transfer survey.) The available data suggests that Illinois universities hit a high in 2011 by executing 142 licenses. In comparison to the top U.S. states, this output still ranks near the bottom. The chart below, reproduced from the August Index, shows how licensing activity in Illinois compared to the other top states in 2010.

It is noteworthy that in 2010, Illinois hospitals and medical centers contributed only two of the state's 142 total licenses. The December 2011 Illinois Innovation Index reported that 92 percent of respondents from an statewide public opinion survey conducted by Research American believed it important for Illinois to be a leader in health R&D, so there is clear gap between goals and performance. More research is needed to understand the reasons behind the health cluster's relatively low contribution to licensing. CMAP will conduct a drill-down report on the region's biomed cluster later this fiscal year.

University start-ups
Since 2006, 122 university start-ups were founded in Illinois, with a record 27 start-ups established in 2011. Of those start-ups, almost 75 percent are still active. Close to 40 percent of all these companies are in biomed, with further concentrations in advanced manufacturing, IT, and clean technology.

Technology transfer does not happen easily, but instead demands coordination and information sharing across different institutions and people. The three innovation metrics of the August Illinois Innovation Index reveal technology transfer in the state to be growing, but that the state needs to gain ground compared to other innovative leaders. The Human Capital chapter of GO TO 2040 lays out a series of recommendations to enhance the commercialization of research that can help the region move forward. Data from the Index is available on MetroPulse.