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Sunday, Nov 19, 2017
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Florida: Where climate is right for American inventors

As state mottoes go, the Sunshine State isn’t bad, but Florida may want to see if California is willing to loan out “Eureka!” Judging by the steady rise in university patents over the past 45 years, Florida may be better known as the place where the climate is just right for American inventors.

Patents are not the only, or even the best measure of creativity, but they do provide detailed snapshots of innovative efforts across geographic locations, organizations, and technologies. A review of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) data since 1969 reveals the meteoric rise over the past decade of Florida’s universities to the elite ranks.

The number of utility patents to U.S. universities started to explode in the 1980s, soon after Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act. This visionary legislation allowed universities to patent federally funded research and to benefit from the commercialization of its own technologies. When successful, these patents helped universities fund future research and provided strong incentives to the inventors, who were able to share in the profits.

The results were profound. In the decade preceding Bayh-Dole, the top 100 U.S. research universities produced less than 2,200 patents. During the entire period, many of the nation’s very best universities had patent stats in the single digits, including zero. In the decade after Bayh-Dole the total number shot to over 5,000, and in the ’90s the figure more than tripled to over 17,000 patents.

Florida’s schools have made a particularly grand entrance.

For the entire decade of the 1970s, six Florida universities generated only 16 U.S. patents. During the past five years, just three — the University of Florida, University of South Florida, and University of Central Florida — garnered 1,111 patents, placing each in the top 20 schools.

Together, UF, USF and UCF form a “Tech Corridor” that, so to speak, patently outperforms the Research Triangle in North Carolina, beats the best of the Ivy League innovators (Colombia, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell), and together surpass MIT — the No. 1 school for patents in the U.S.

Part of Florida’s patent surge in the 1980s was due to the phenomenal success of Gatorade, which was invented for the University of Florida Gators in 1965. Although Gatorade preceded the 1980 Bayh-Dole legislation (and ironically, was never granted a U.S. patent), the huge royalties UF (designated by the Legislature as Florida’s “preeminent university”) received from its most successful invention — about $250 million since 1972 — enabled it to establish a tech transfer office soon after Bayh-Dole became law and has helped fund dozens of UF start-up technologies every year.

The rise of the Florida Tech Corridor’s junior partners has been astounding. Built in 1956 on an old practice bombing range in Tampa, the University of South Florida generates more patents than all of the Ivy League colleges except for Columbia.

Likewise, the University of Central Florida has come up from literally nowhere. Founded in 1963 just north of Orlando, its location was so undistinguished that it took the college’s first president weeks to find the plot of farmland on which the school was supposed to be built. Since 2010, its researchers have been granted more patents than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Virginia.

“In addition to conducting research and publishing their results,” says Paul R. Sanberg, president of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) and USF’s vice president for research, “more and more faculty members are looking to translate their research into products.”

With lucrative licensing deals at stake, expect more and more universities — big and small — to copy Florida and develop intrastate research networks to spur academic innovation and patenting.

Richard G. Miles is the co-founder and vice president of the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville. The Cade Museum is named after Dr. James Robert Cade, the University of Florida physician who led the team that invented Gatorade.

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