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Data licensing opportunities abound, but deals are not without challenges

A detailed article on many opportunities as well as challenges involved in licensing university data appears in the September issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the complete article, or for further subscription details, click here.

It appears, at first glance, like a no-brainer: Universities, particularly those with affiliated health care centers and organizations, have virtually immeasurable stores of data — the kind of data that companies in the forefront of areas like AI, machine learning, and quantum computing would love to have. It seems like an obvious source of significant potential licensing revenue.

However, “obvious” does not equal “easy,” and the barriers TTOs face in discovering, collecting, and developing an inventory of all the potentially valuable data they have are significant — issues around PHI, regulations, ethical issues with consent, federal agency requirements, quality, and data management are among the biggest hurdles. In fact, many leading research universities admit that they are still in the very early stages of developing strategies to mine this data “gold.”

“It’s a mess, especially for us commercialization people,” asserts Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president for commercialization and director of UF Innovate at the University of Florida.

Where does he see the key challenges? “We’re inherently linked at the hip with the hospital systems and the College of Medicine,” he observes. “Of course, we must deal with patient privacy issues. They can vary widely from lawyer to lawyer, and organization to organization. All hospital administrators want to do is minimize liability” and may not see the potential for licensing as worth that risk.

Then, he continues, there are consent issues. “You can get PHI; people actively involved in clinical trials sign over some stuff, but the consent is not always as much as you need or would like,” says O’Connell. “We had an issue that came up; I had to intervene and said we do not want to be the next [Henrietta Lacks] issue,” referring to the recent case in which a patient’s cervical cancer cells were used over decades to create the immortal HeLa cell line used in many drugs that made billions, without her original consent or any payment. “We need to reach back and get the right ‘OK.’”

Data quality is another key issue for O’Connell. “The value [of the data] highly depends on quality, but people at the front end of the process are not thinking about the need for a quality data set, but about how to help the patient,” he explains. And that, he adds, rolls right into data management.

“It’s a question of opening that up to the public — in what situations? Who has access?” he poses. “It’s not quality anymore, but who handles this, who’s the inventor, how do you make sure it’s not in the public domain? Here in Florida, sunshine laws let almost anyone get access to almost anything. We’re transitioning from ideas being in a lab notebook to the electronic realm, so it even touches on data security.”

That’s not to say that these challenges cannot be overcome, or that there aren’t TTOs that are successfully licensing data. “We track all of these things, and my general guidance is that yes, there is more interest in these licenses, and we are doing more volume in aggregate across all types of database licenses,” reports Drew Bennett, director of software, content licensing, and research partnerships at the University of Michigan.

Duke University is also recognized as one of the more successful institutions at licensing data, and David F. Chang Villacreses, who until recently was assistant director, digital innovation in Duke’s Office for Translation & Commercialization, notes that “there was a post-pandemic bump in [data-related] disclosures and licenses which saw numbers ramping back up again in 2023.”

So, how do TTOs successfully generate data licenses in the face of significant challenges? “Any TTO will tell you it all starts with invention disclosures,” says Chang Villacreses, who ran a software, data, and digital innovation portfolio that involved “a couple of hundred” licenses a year. “When a researcher started publishing data openly, then the TTO learned about it,” he notes. “As [data innovations] became more prevalent, we needed to evangelize — promote internally — and following disclosures make it available for the scientific community, while at the same time finding ways to control the data and potentially analyze if it was licensable.”

Benjy Neymotin, PhD, assistant director of life sciences in the University of Central Florida Office of Technology Transfer, agrees, stressing the importance of educating faculty about data assets that may be of value. “Oftentimes TTOs and researchers focus solely on patents and copyrights,” he notes. “They should also be emphasizing what could be tangible — research tools, datasets — not through IP protection, but through contractual means. Put in some confidentiality provisions and license them out to companies.”

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