RIT Cuts Red Tape with R&D Program

This is a transcript from:  RIT Cuts Red Tape with R&D Program

AIR DATE:  08-11-09 and 08-12-09

INTRO:  Now, a philosophical question.  Who owns an idea?  That’s the conundrum for universities that do research for companies.  Does the professor who made the breakthrough own it?  What about the company that paid for it?  Or the university who pays the professor’s salary?  And what about the grad students, slaving away as assistants?  

WXXI’s Rachel Ward takes a stab at answering that question … starting with a very common problem.
Losing your cellphone is the great modern tragedy.  It has all your stuff on it – people don’t even memorize phone numbers anymore, so it could be the only way you can call your mom or your best friend.  

But for people with a company phone – say, a Blackberry, it’s more than personal.  It can be a ticking time bomb.

TRIPATHI <The company's employee is carrying a mobile phone with him and he has a lot of important documents, Word files, PDF files, or appointments in his mobile phone, and what if the company employee lose that phone?> [Duration: 0'14"]

That’s Rahul Tripathi.  He’s a masters student at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  He’s just finished doing research that would help companies with forgetful employees manage data on missing phones.

TRIPATHI <Even if they lose the mobile phone from the company, they can either disable the phone or crash the operating system or do any kind of stuff that another user, who is illegally using the phone, he might not be able to access those files.> [Duration: 0'15"]

Tripathi, along with a few other R-I-T students, have developed a way to remotely disable a cellphone by text message.  If an employee loses her phone, the boss sends a text to a tiny hidden application, and that can protect sensitive data from bad guys.

Sounds good, right?  

But the problem is, you and I can’t have the application.  At least not yet.  It was developed for PAETEC Communications, through R-I-T’s “Corporate R and D Program.”

In that program, a professor and a team of graduate students work together to solve a problem for a company.  They get paid for their work, and when the project is done, the company gets to keep any intellectual property that’s developed.  

That’s not the way the relationship normally goes between companies and universities – generally it’s more like

BOYD <Give us the money and we'll tell you what we did with it after we're done LAUGHS.> [Duration: 0'5"]

Don Boyd heads up the corporate R and D program at R-I-T.  He says, traditionally, companies and colleges are combatants in this game.  If a company funds research, it wants to keep all of the new technology for its own, exclusive use.  The professors want credit for what they’ve invented -- they want to answer the questions they’re curious about and not necessarily meet corporate timelines.  And for the schools’ part – Boyd says they want to cash in.

BOYD <And that’s always been the debate with universities because universities think if they keep it they can license it and keep these big royalties ... and it does happen in some cases.> [Duration: 0'11"]

Boyd says R-I-T’s program, now approaching the two-year mark, simplifies the transaction.  Companies pay a flat fee upfront, for research by R-I-T students.  The students, with a faculty advisor, get to work on the project.  Everyone can publish about the work, but at the end, they have to hand everything over – including any new intellectual property.  No haggling, no hassle.

But that part about giving up what you’ve worked on for a year can be bittersweet, according to Rahul Tripathi, the masters student.

He was a little sad to turn over the idea of disabling a phone by text message, but it got him thinking about another solution for a lost phone – actually find it.

TRIPATHI <An application might be created so that it can generate the GPS locations of the phone and send back GPS locations to the server. They can track down the mobile phone as well, where the mobile phone is now.> [Duration: 0'12"]

So everyone loves this program right?  Who could possibly have a problem with it?  

JONG <My name is Tracy Jong and I am a patent and trademark attorney.> [Duration: 0'5"]

To be fair, Tracy’s just doing what any attorney does – making sure everyone involved is aware of what they’re getting into.  She says there could be an issue for students seeking employment after participating in the Corporate R and D program.  Once they’ve worked on a company’s proprietary stuff, they have to hush up about it, no matter how much their new employers might want in on a trade secret.

And for faculty, what happens to your invention after the project, could be an issue.

JONG <Ultimately if you're giving the invention and all of the technology to the company, the company has ownership control.  So it's possible the company decides, great that's really cool research, we're not going to do anything with it.> [Duration: 0'12"]

Jong says as long as everyone goes into the agreement with their eyes open, the program could cut down on the endless negotiating lawyers like to do before a project gets underway, and free up researchers to get new technology working faster.

Which is good.  Because the sooner masters student Rahul Tripathi invents his cell phone locator application, the sooner we can all find our missing phones.

Rachel Ward, WXXI News.