University fosters entrepreneurship through patents, but with a catch


By Michael Semaca, Staff Writer


Among its elite alumni, the University boasts the seventh richest man in the world. Larry Ellison co-founded the enterprise software company, Oracle Corporation.

But he’s not alone. The list of Illini entrepreneurs is expansive. Former students have helped start companies like PayPal, YouTube, Tesla and Yelp.

With such acclaimed individuals having been on campus, current student entrepreneurs can stay inspired. Niraj Pant, sophomore in Engineering, chose to enroll in the University for this reason.

“(The University has a) great track record, especially for a school not connected to Silicon Valley, as deeply as Stanford or UC Berkeley,” Pant said. “It does make me believe there’s potential to replicate the success.”

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Pant is a member of Founders, a student organization connecting prospective entrepreneurs across campus. He also heads their Startup Bootcamp program designed to foster entrepreneurial skills.

    Founders is just one of many resources student entrepreneurs have on campus. The Office of Technology Management, or OTM, manages the intellectual property created on campus. They help students file patents for their ideas, according to Interim Director Nathan Hoffmann.

    The office assists students in determining if the University has ownership interest in the intellectual property. But there’s a catch.

    “Depending on the outcome of that discussion and that conversation, if the University doesn’t own the intellectual property then we’re not going to pursue it,” Hoffmann said.

    This is typical within higher education, Hoffmann said. The University will only assist a student in filing a patent if it gets something in return — an ownership stake.

    If so, the University will gladly assist students, Hoffmann said.

    “We can help them through our normal process, just like we would for any faculty member or any other employee,” he said.

    The University expects an ownership stake if the student filing the patent used University resources.

    “If it wasn’t just something they did on their own, with their own computer in their dorm room, it was something developed here, using University labs or University facilities, or those sorts of things, then the University might have an ownership right to that intellectual property,” Hoffmann explained.

    This process occurs quite regularly on campus. The University exerted its ownership rights through Marc Andreessen’s development of the Mosaic web browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, NCSA, in 1993. While Andreessen created the browser, the University had a stake in it and licensed it to Microsoft due to its development at NCSA.

    To Pant, this is a fair tradeoff. He said that the University often provides resources, funding and collaboration to produce the patent.

    “As long as the stake isn’t too big or takes any special stock rights, it doesn’t seem too bad,” he said.

    Yet, he sees room for improvement. The University can do more to help entrepreneurs, and sees he it as an opportunity for interdisciplinary work on campus.

    “It’s typically CS or ECE students creating most companies on campus,” Pant said. “I see a lot of value in bringing together all the schools to build truly defensive, innovative companies that aren’t just focused on the engineering aspect.”

    [email protected]