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USF gains international notice for record number of patents

TAMPA - Six years ago, University of South Florida dance professor Merry Lynn Morris approached a couple of engineering professors with an idea. How can you make a wheelchair move more like a human? Today, Morris and six former USF engineering students hold a patent on her idea. It's one of 83 last year that put the school at No. 9 among universities worldwide earning U.S. patents. "It's a huge validation of the work you do, which can take years," Morris said.
The ranking comes from the Intellectual Property Owners Association's annual list of the Top 300 U.S. patent recipients in the world. IBM had the most for 2010, with 5,866. USF was one of 14 universities on the list. The University of California Regents led that pack, with 349 patents. "We've really worked to change the culture here," said USF's Paul Sanberg, holder of about 30 U.S. patents, including the first for using cord blood and bone marrow for stem cells used in brain repair. Two years ago, Sanberg launched the National Academy of Inventors at USF, to recognize patent-holders and their work. Patenting is a key step in turning a discovery into something people can use, Sanberg said. But the process hasn't traditionally been part of universities' academic mission. That's changing. "Universities are having to become more focused on real-world ecomomics, so you're seeing more of them trying to take advantage of their intellectual property," he said. With its 83, USF received more than twice as many patents last year as it did three years ago. The 2010 patent list shows a breadth of inventions, from wheelchairs for disabled dancers to new ways to test the acidy of seawater to a self-guided roller coaster ride. USF Assistant Vice President Valerie McDevitt works with faculty to help them get patents and find companies interested in licensing their discoveries. When she started in the school's Patents and Licensing office, it had only a few employees. Today, the office has about 15. "It's been a lot of fun. I've seen a lot of change, a lot of innovation," McDevitt said. These days she seeing a lot of interdisciplinary work and "collaborations among groups that you wouldn't think would be working together." Morris had been rolling her idea over in her mind for years before she visited College of Engineering Professor Rajiv Dubey and instructor Stephen Sundarrao. Her father was disabled in a car accident when she was 12, and Morris helped take care of him, so she was intimately familiar with the limits of life in a wheelchair. Some were societal, but many existed because of the chair's clunky design. Always a dancer, Morris began to envision a chair that would allow someone to express themselves through movement, freeing hands and arms from having to push a wheel or joystick. The USF engineers were intrigued. So in 2006, Sundarrao assigned several of his students to work with Morris. It took about a year to develop a working prototype. In June 2008, USF filed for the patent, which came through last summer. The invention is a system that uses sensors on the seat that tell the chair to move forward, backward or sideways with small upper-body shifts. "It's a versatile system that we think will revolutionize how people view device operation," said Kathryn DeLaurentis, one of several people in the engineering college working closely with Morris to refine its operation. Morris knew the discovery process would be a challenge, but she had no idea of how legalistic it would get, she said. In the end, though, that process was useful. "You have to put everything on paper and show what role this person played and what role that person played. You have to be really clear." Those credits really matter when the invention gets to where the dance chair is now, with a potential manufacturer showing interest. The patent belongs to USF, which filed the application, but as one of the listed inventors, Morris would share any income from product sales, as would the six others named in the application. Right now, Morris is focused not so much on sales but getting the chairs to people who could use them. She's been corresponding with a woman who has a disabled child and started a dance studio to help her. She's also working with injured war veterans. As Morris and the engineers find further refinements, they're likely to get more patents. One patent tends to lead to another and another, as an institution becomes more sophisticated, said Robert Byrne, a professor in the College of Marine Science with several patents. He studies the seawater chemicals that reveal critical changes in the environment. As the marine college grew and gained patents, he said, researchers acquired the technology they needed for more inventions. His latest patent is for a new, more efficient way of measuring the ocean's acidity, which studies show is becoming more concentrated as carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere. And why does this matter? High acid levels in the sea mean lower levels of carbonate, and without carbonate in combination with calcium, reefs can't form, and sea creatures can't make their shells. With his patent, Byrne can move ahead to develop the test for commercial distribution. "This will speed up analysis and really enable analysis where it can't be performed," he said. "There are many highly competent researchers who want to study reefs but don't have these chemical tools. We're trying to make them more commercially available." But not every inventor at USF is out to save the world. Michael Kovac did serious work for a long time as dean of USF's engineering college and director of its nanotechnology center. But in his spare time he was riding roller coasters with his grandchildren and trying to figure out how to create the kind of ride no one had ever experienced before. Kovac's idea: Give riders the ability to select their own paths. He and USF got the patent for his idea about a year ago, four years after USF filed the application. The way it works, one or two riders sit in a sphere that has a lot of perforations, so as it rolls it seems transparent. Wheels and a stabilizing device on the seat keep it from rolling with the sphere, but a breaking mechanism enables the riders to start turning, too. The chair is also sensitive to body shifts and allows riders to guide the sphere to the left or right. Kovac, now retired, is looking for someone to help him build a prototype. He's had some licensing interest from roller coaster companies, but no promises. "It might be a little too avant-garde," he said. At least with the patent, Kovac said, he has "something tangible." And while it may not have the gravitas of a new drug or life-saving device, it's a unique creation that could one day lead to a larger discovery. "Even if a patent doesn't get licensed, it becomes prior art for new inventions and could be licensed later, when someone else uses it," Sanberg said. "All of it helps the progress of science."

lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter: @TBO_USFetc
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