The schools made $592 million from licenses and royalties in 1996, the last year for which the figures are available, according to a report prepared by the Association of University Technology Managers. That's up from $495 million the year before and a 167 percent increase in five years.
This growth comes even as research spending by government and private industry has slowed and colleges and universities are seeking new ways to raise money.
"Look at it as a hard-earned windfall," said Marvin Guthrie, the association's president and vice president of patents and licensing at Massachusetts General Hospital. "You've got research, you've got the successful transfer of research information to a company, the company hires people. So there is a return all the way down: people hold their jobs, the investors make money, some of the money goes back to the university in the form of royalties and everybody benefits."
Developing and marketing products that originated from academic research pumped an estimated $25 billion into the American and Canadian economies and supported 212,500 jobs in 1996, according to the association's study.
Such products range from cutting-edge bio-pharmaceuticals to a soap that protects against infection from tick bites. The University of Arizona patented a high-yield hybrid cotton.
The University of Connecticut invented orthodonture wire made from titanium and the University of Nebraska produced grass that needs less mowing, watering and fertilizer.
The University of California system alone made $63.2 million from licenses and patents, Stanford $43.8 million, Columbia $40.6 million, and Harvard $7.6 million.
But critics worry closer ties between academia and the private sector may transform universities into industrial laboratories, focused only on potentially money-making research. They worry some schools may soon put pressure on their research faculties to focus on those areas most likely to produce a profit.
"Money is a pretty strong driver, and as the money gets bigger, the push to get more involved in things that have a potential for making big money gets stronger and stronger," said Jules LaPidus, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. "There's nothing wrong with capitalizing on the results of research, but we have to be careful that the university doesn't turn into the development arm (for industry)."
Collectively, American and Canadian colleges and universities awarded a record 2,741 licenses to private industry to develop products based on their research. The schools applied for 3,261 patents, up 11 percent from 1995.
Royalties and revenue from licenses is usually split between the departments in which the discoveries were made, he university and the inventors.
Faculty who work with private industry are not normally prevented from sharing the results of their research, though some are required to allow their private industry partners to review the data first.
University authorities point out that license fees and royalties from patents represent a fraction of the $21.4 billion a year in research conducted by the 173 universities and colleges surveyed.
By Jon Marcus
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