02/25/2014 01:19 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2014

Should Universities Profit From Student Research?


In 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Cornell University and Israel’s Technion would jointly open a new school on Roosevelt Island to help boost New York’s tech sector. The first buildings of the new campus won’t open until 2017, but classes are already under way in borrowed space on the third floor of Google’s New York office. And, on Monday, Cornell Tech, as the school is called, plans to announce that it has enrolled its first batch of post-doctoral researchers in a one-year “Runway” program, designed to launch them into business ventures based on their specialties: urban planning, e-commerce, health care. In an unusual twist, the school will invest in the companies founded through the program, but also allow students to keep ownership of the intellectual property they create on campus; typically, universities profit by keeping the rights to such property.

Cornell Tech isn’t the only institution to invest in student startups. Stanford announced last year that it would invest in companies founded by its students. M.I.T. also takes an equity stake in companies developed on campus. But Stanford and M.I.T. both require those companies to pay royalties on any technologies the students patent while in school. Rather than negotiate complex patent-licensing rights with their researchers, Cornell Tech will treat the value of each post-doc position it awards—about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—as an angel investment in any business spun out of the program; in exchange, Cornell Tech expects to get an average of a five-per-cent stake in each business. The Runway program echoes the accelerators and incubators popular among venture capitalists—three- or four-month programs in which entrepreneurs get resources to build new startups in exchange for a stake in their companies.

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