The Harvard name is among the most prestigious in the world. Thousands of the best scientific researchers work at its top-ranked medical school. And it sits within a few miles of one of the world’s foremost engines of medical innovation, the biotech hub of Kendall Square.
Yet when it comes to converting the scientific discoveries of its faculty members into blockbuster drugs and devices, Harvard falls short.
A STAT analysis of data updated in September finds that Harvard — used to being at the top of most rankings that count — isn’t even in the same league as many US universities by several measures of success in commercializing faculty research.
Harvard ranks 25th among universities and university systems in terms of the number of faculty inventions it licensed or optioned out to industry in the 2012-14 fiscal years, according to data from the Association of University Technology Managers.
The STAT analysis ranked Harvard 20th in efficiency, a measure that takes into account the amount of research spending and how many faculty discoveries have been commercialized at the top business-generating schools. The University of Georgia got five times more bang for its research buck by this measure.
And when it came to earning royalties and other income on the fruits of its faculty’s inventions, Harvard was just 27th. To put that into perspective: Over the course of those three years, Northwestern and NYU each brought in over half a billion dollars more in royalties than mighty Harvard.
So what’s going on here?
You might guess that Harvard isn’t investing in commercializing its research. But Harvard is a decade into a push to do exactly that.
In 2005, the university brought in Isaac Kohlberg, a whiz kid from Israel, to jumpstart its tech transfer office, which works on commercializing faculty members’ eureka moments in the lab by creating startups or launching partnerships and licensing deals with existing businesses.
And industry insiders think he’s doing a good job. “Isaac Kohlberg is a really hard charger. He’s got some very sophisticated ways of doing this, and they’re really very proactive,” said AUTM president Fred Reinhart. (The AUTM’s data, which STAT used for the analysis, is fairly complete, but a small number of universities don’t report their data, and there is some variation in the way each institution counts licensing deals.)
Michal Preminger, a director of business development for Harvard’s tech transfer office, said she and her team don’t dwell too much on how to bring in revenue for the university. They focus instead on how to help faculty and bring useful products to market to help patients, she said — knowing that success in those realms “will translate into financial return.”
But the question remains: Why isn’t Harvard leading the pack when it has so many advantages? STAT spoke to experts around the country for some answers.
Harvard’s not interested in peanuts
The University of Georgia, which the STAT analysis ranked as the most efficient in the nation at capitalizing on faculty research, has a recipe for success: peanuts.
The university’s agriculture inventions are relatively low-cost and low-risk, including 19 varieties of peanut plants that resist disease, tolerate drought, and produce more nutritious nuts. Peanut products make up a significant plurality of the discoveries the school moves to the marketplace.
By contrast, the cutting-edge biomedical research that Harvard and other elite universities prioritize is often costlier. Nine out of 10 experimental drugs fail in clinical trials, and many projects that tech transfer offices try to commercialize don’t even make it that far.
For Harvard and other universities focused on drug development, that can mean a lot of spending with little payoff.
Harvard has to share scientists with its hospitals
At Harvard, many faculty hold joint appointments at nearby research hospitals — and some of their research is licensed by those hospitals, many of which have their own tech transfer offices.
For instance, if a Harvard scientist with a primary appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital makes a discovery that leads to a blockbuster drug, the hospital — not Harvard — will likely reap the financial rewards.
So for Harvard, an unusually vibrant neighborhood doesn’t always translate into more licenses or greater profits.
Tech transfer can be a game of luck
Directors and staffers at a handful of top revenue-earning tech transfer schools all said they hit the jackpot on just one breakthrough.
No. 1-ranked Northwestern has taken in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in recent years — the vast majority of its royalties income — from a discovery that led to the blockbuster anti-seizure drug Lyrica.
For the University of Florida, which ranks 16th in the STAT revenue analysis, the silver bullet is Gatorade, developed by scientists at its medical school to help the football team — the Gators — withstand the withering heat and humidity.
And the University of Illinois, at No. 19, is on the rankings map thanks to the HIV drug Prezista.
Harvard, which has brought in less than $13 million annually from licensing income in recent years, hasn’t gotten that one big break.
Payoff can be long in the making
Even when a university tech transfer office strikes gold with a faculty member’s discovery, it can take years or even decades to get from an academic lab to a revenue stream.
Northwestern is profiting off a 1989 discovery. For the University of Illinois, it was the 1990s. And the University of Florida has to look all the way back to the 1960s for the invention of Gatorade, the source of much of its current revenue stream.
Harvard is still waiting to see if a discovery made long ago will pay off in the near-term — or if a gem lurking in a Boston laboratory right now might pay dividends in the future.