At the University of Rhode Island the department of computer, electrical and biomedical engineering is home to inventive undergraduate and graduate students who are capable of making patentable creations with the help of the school, but this help does not come free. Students who work with professors and/or use the school’s materials or funding are likely to lose the (majority) ownership rights to the patent of their idea.
“We work on computer architecture and computer network, so sometimes students come up with new invention ideas [through] research,” said Qing Yang, a professor of computer, electrical and biomedical engineering. “We publish papers at the same time, and we give them to URI’s IPC (Intellectual Property Committee), if we believe they are patentable, and URI files the patent application.”
The sponsors of the projects determine who owns the rights to the patent(s). If URI sponsors a project with any of its funding or resources, the university become the owner of two-thirds of the patent and its benefits.
“If you are a student at URI and you have some ideas and you develop anything out of your own [resources] or with friends then you have 100 percent rights and can file a patent if you want to,” said Godi Fischer, the department chair of computer, electrical and biomedical engineering. “But if it’s a sponsored project, and URI provides the funding or the resources … [then] the inventor has one third of the potential benefits of a patent. But it depends on who sponsored it and how independently the idea was developed.”
Yang and his students have been the co-inventors of multiple projects, all of which the school owns the patents for.
“Many of our patents [have been] licensed to a computer industry and URI received royalty payments, and some of them have resulted in start up companies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” said Yang.
The ownership percentages of the patents are proportionate to the benefits that each part-owner will receive. And since patents can range between $10,000 and $20,000 students generally need the university’s assistance in obtaining at least the patent to guard their idea(s).
“For instance, if I were working with a professor here and I create ideas that can be patented, then I have a third the right to use that,” said Fischer. “In other words, [of] any benefits [produced] I will get up to 35 percent, and the university will get the remaining 65 percent … but if it is two inventors then you would have to split that presumably, and if there were more than that you would have to split the deal into more parts.”
There is a small loop hole for students who receive funding and/or materials from the university once before the IPC. The committee decides whether they want to move forward with purchasing a patent, regardless of if they have already assisted the students or professors, after the inventors have presented their completed idea to the committee.
“And [the IPC] would then decide if they think this is a good idea and they want to go ahead and patent protect it, or if they don’t want to do that they give it back to the inventor,” said Fischer. “And if URI declines it you have 100 percent right to do whatever you want to do with it.”
When questioned about whether the IPC had ever turned down any of his or his students’ ideas Yang could not recall a time when one was rejected by the committee and full rights were returned to the inventors.
“No I haven’t experienced that,” said Yang. “[With] most of my presentations or my students’ presentations the university likes them and files a patent.”
Currently, Yang is working with six graduate students on multiple projects.
“One project is on smart city and another project is on a digital storage and computer network architecture,” said Yang. “We also have a student working on a hands free computer mouse. He is going to disclose his invention probably next month.”
Yang is in the process of setting up a meeting between the IPC and the student so that he can present his invention, the hands free computer mouse. Additionally, the smart city project has many layers to it and will be a great contribution once finished.
“[For the smart city project] we use smart and high resolution sensors to monitor the city infrastructure,” said Yang. “This sensed information will be transmitted to layers of computers starting from a simple embedded processor to local servers [and] up to the cloud. And through the computers we monitor the city in real time to different situations and respond quickly to different types of events, such as fires, disasters and so forth.”