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ASU moves up in global patent ranking

International standing shows how the university excels at taking technology to market — all with goal of helping society


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July 12, 2016

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

There’s a device that pulls water out of the desert air, a gadget that instantly gauges human immune system reactions and a gizmo that measures indoor contaminants by testing the condensation from an air conditioner — an air-quality check that doesn't require entering a building. 

The common fuel to all three is a culture of innovation at Arizona State University that has accelerated the path from drawing board to application for dozens of new technologies. That environment of creativity was recognized in both global rankings and dollar figures released Tuesday.

ASU ranks 38th among worldwide institutions in earning utility patents, the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association said today. ASU had 55 patentsThe report is based on data obtained from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association compile the rankings each year by calculating the number of utility patents that list a university as the first assignee. ASU actually was awarded 62 patents in fiscal year 2015, but because the patent office didn’t accurately list ASU in all the filings, the rankings captured only 55 patents. in fiscal year 2015 and moved up from 40th place in the previous rankings.

It underscores the university’s effort to ease the process for acquiring patents.

Just ask Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute, who has been awarded six patents in the last six years and has about a dozen more in various stages of approval.

“It’s a very nurturing culture that makes it easy for folks to file patents,” Halden said. “There’s a lot of information on how it’s done, most of it is done online and it takes away some of the horrors of dealing with forms.”

Ninety-six companies have been launched based on ASU innovations, and more than $600 million has been raised — including a record $96 million in fiscal year 2016.

A patent is important because it protects the work done by ASU’s faculty and shows that research done in a lab turns into something tangible.

“The reason we do this is not just to get a patent — which is a good metric and great accomplishment and is significant,” said Ken Polasko, executive director of Arizona Technology Enterprises, the intellectual property management and tech transfer organization for ASU. “We want to help facilitate getting the technology out into the marketplace for the benefit of society.”

The number of patents reflects the amount of high-quality research at ASU, according to Charlie Lewis, senior vice president of venture development at the Arizona Technology Enterprises at ASU.

“When you’re looking for money, what investors are concerned with is their protection, and this ranking is evidence of the robustness of the research and development that’s happening here and the number of patents applied for,” he said.

“We can directly count more than 350 jobs through start-ups launched in Arizona that have intellectual-property patents licensed to them through ASU,” he said.

Lewis said that 96 companies have been launched based on ASU innovations, and more than $600 million has been raised — including a record $96 million in fiscal year 2016.

Start-ups that drew investments last year were Zero Mass Water, which uses solar-powered systems to produce drinking water and was founded by Cody Friesen, an associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter and Transport of Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and HealthTell, a diagnostic platform that can assess real-time immune system responses and came out of ASU’s Biodesign Institute with company founders and ASU professors Stephen Johnston and Neal Woodbury.

“Success begets success,” Lewis said.

“When our research gets commercialized for societal benefit, that creates more credibility and that helps when our faculty go out for federal grants, where most of the research funding is from,” he said.

“At ASU, during every step of the research process, we ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently or better to have a bigger positive impact on the world around us?'”
— Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU

Halden, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, works on improving human health by studying exposure to toxic chemicals and inventing ways to clean up contamination in soil and groundwater. He has developed several diagnostic devices and methods.

His start-up company, launched after he came to the Biodesign Institute, is called In Situ Well Technologies and commercializes his “In Situ Microcosm Array” technology, a pod-like device that gets sent into a groundwater monitoring well and can conduct multiple experiments simultaneously.

Halden also has patents pending on a technology that measures indoor air contamination by examining the condensation water that leaks outdoors from an air-conditioning unit.

“That water can be analyzed for chemicals, and it turns out that you can tell the exposure of the people inside without even entering the building,” he said. “It’s a very efficient and economical way of determining the quality of air in a workplace.”

In the newly released patent report, ASU ranked higher than Seoul National University, in 39th place, as well as Duke, the University of Southern California, Princeton, Ohio State, Penn State and Yale. The University of California system, with 10 campuses, ranked first with 489 patents. 

“At ASU, during every step of the research process, we ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently or better to have a bigger positive impact on the world around us?'” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

“The increase in patents and our rise in the rankings demonstrates that our approach is working and exemplifies the drive of our faculty and researchers.”

Top photo: The Biodesign Institute on ASU's Tempe campus.

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