Photocredit: Kaare Smith

When Universities Turn Their Patents into Start-Ups Everybody Wins

According to Marianne Thellersen, the senior vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at DTU, universities should feel an obligation to consider whether the knowledge that is generated in their academic departments can benefit individuals and societies. And start-ups are often the most viable way to ensure knowledge gets translated to practice.

More often than not inventors take out patents to protect the investment that established companies and start-ups made to bring the technology to market. Most universities file a number of patents every year based on the research undertaken in their departments and its real-world applicability. In fact, by Danish law universities have a role to play in the commercialisation of the patents they take out.

According to Marianne Thellersen, the senior vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at DTU, ’From our point of view, [researchers and the university] have a responsibility to get our knowledge out in the world and create jobs and value in society’.

Even though investing in filing patents and running start-up programs to turn patents into commercial products impacts the university’s bottom-line, for Thellersen this is entirely worthwhile, even necessary:

’There would be no reason for us to build start-ups if established companies brought new technology to the market directly, but the technologies are often too immature for that. We are really good at research, but we can’t mature and commercialise patents on our own’.

Start-ups are bringing inventions to the world

While it’s necessary to embed entrepreneurship into the university’s walls, it takes years of experience working within and outside of academia to provide the training and build the capacity needed for the next generation of researchers. Now, after many years in the making, DTU has role models who have done it before, and they have helped the university to build a wide and open ecosystem for start-ups.


P4G på DTU Skylab 2019

Despite the wealth of knowledge and opportunities available, it is also necessary to make students and researchers aware of how they can capitalise on this. As Thellersen sees it, this is a matter of changing the culture by encouraging researchers to constantly consider whether their research has value outside of the univesity’s walls.

Over time, DTU has become more selective in terms of the stages of the patents they are filing, appreciating that they need to have a viable pathway to the market. Of course, what that path looks like – from knowledge to product – is different in each case. Although the university cannot always be the driving force behind it, they have a strong role to play in facilitating the commercialisation of their patents. In describing DTU’s process, Thellersen points out:

’At the moment we file a patent we make a plan for it. We talk with investors about the best way forward, and sometimes it is through launching a start-up. The technology is often so early that established companies can’t immediately put in on their shelves’.

Commercialisation leads to better research outcomes

DTU runs a series of programs and offers targeted grants to help research entrepreneurs get started and accelerate their projects. Even though this doesn’t generate profits by itself, it opens up research for funding by commercial partners. The effort also creates value in other ways.

’I think it’s healthy to actually look at how the research you’re doing can be applied to the real world. Theoretically, you can have a lot of assumptions about its potential, but it’s an entirely different story when it meets the real world. The findings become more concrete, and, in the end, I actually think we get better research because it is put into the perspective of everyday use-value’, Thellersen concludes.

Those start-ups that are spun out of patents filed by DTU are often led by a professor or a doctoral student associated with the research.