A new office at Martin Hall on campus could pay huge dividends for Lafayette’s economy.
Written by Walter Pierce
Photo by Robin May
| Gary Breit
Gary Breit’s success as the director of UL Lafayette’s new Office of Innovation Management could have a profound impact on the economic future of Lafayette and Acadiana. It’s a job he both takes seriously and seems to have a lot of fun doing.
“It means jobs, it means startups — universities start up about 600 companies per year,” Breit says of his work.
In broad terms, Breit’s focus is simple: help ensure that inventions patented through research at UL create jobs and companies right here at home rather than in California or other tech-intensive regions. Most of the research yielding patents at UL come via computer science, physics and chemistry, he adds, and his office is looking to turn on the jets in the coming months. “We’re working on some physical and chemical technology software,” he says. “We own about 20 patents, and I suspect we’ll file another 10 this year, so we’ll really ramp up. It goes from software to new compounds for the petroleum industry to new ways to make drugs.”
Breit’s career began at Revlon where he served as a senior brand manager and member of the corporate acquisitions team. His experience in academia is impressive, too: He launched intellectual property management programs at Creighton University and the University of South Alabama and turned around flagging programs at the University of Texas and the University of Manitoba in Canada.
If there’s one thing Breit knows it’s that university research can be big business.
“Across the country it’s a $2.4 billion business for universities, and the neat thing is that’s just a tiny tip; the multiplier is huge,” he notes. “So if it’s $2.4 billion that means it’s probably $200 billion in product sales.”
The flood gates for university research being transformed into marketable products opened in 1981. That’s the year the Bayh-Dole Act became law. Passed by Congress the prior year and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and his Republican counterpart from Kansas, Bob Dole, the law clarified who owns intellectual property rights when that intellectual property was the result of university research conducted with public tax dollars. The university owns it, and that ownership incentivized research at universities across the country.
“Universities went from maybe 200 patents a year to several thousand a year, and universities have licensed literally thousands of products across the U.S.,” Breit says. “You name it we’ve licensed it.”
And those patents can spur economic development — if universities are savvy at keeping the inventions and inventors at home rather than chasing start-up capital elsewhere.
“We can start one company every couple of years here in town if we can find the managers and the risk capital,” he explains. “It’s the modern form of economic development. Moving companies is kind of passé.
“Those 600 companies that American universities start, about 75 percent to 80 percent end up in the region. So what we want to do is do that here. We want to move the technology into high-tech companies here in town or we want to start companies. Universities don’t really look at this as a way to get rich quick; mostly they look at it as a way to get the technology out [to market] and create a few jobs and help the local economy.”
Typically the intellectual property produced by universities is the result of research by teams of professors and graduate students. They also have an incentive to be productive and creative, Breit adds, because of royalty sharing policies with their institutions, which vary by university. In UL’s case it’s a 60/40 split: UL gets 60 percent of any income generated by a new patent; the team that created it gets 40. The university assumes the risk for developing the product, too, freeing the researchers to be creative without the burden of financial risk.
Breit calls the system a “virtuous cycle.”
“The more research that you do, the more discoveries you see, the better chance you have of having a hit, and those things can lead to more jobs, which of course leads to more taxes, more research and all that,” he explains. “It’s a pretty powerful story, and Americans are quite good at it.”