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Crowdsourcing science site Marblar revamps patents-to-products contest

A website that gave out more than US$50,000 in cash prizes to visitors who suggested uses for patented research discoveries is changing tack, after a score of prizewinning ideas got nowhere.

Marblar, which launched a year ago in an effort to find uses for the vast pools of unused intellectual property produced by research organizations, is now partnering with electronics giant Samsung, based in Seoul, and giving the firm exclusive rights to commercialize any crowdsourced suggestions.

The new agreement has changed incentives: website visitors will get 10% of the royalty payments if Samsung makes a product out of their idea. Marblar is also adding around $500 million worth of patented work from NASA, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute. One of the new patents involves the famous ‘flying robots’ from Vijay Kumar’s laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania — apparently still looking for an application.

Marblar’s founders — all young doctoral students — had hoped last October that their crowdsourcing site would solve an important problem: much interesting science that emerges from university labs lies fallow even when patented, because it’s hard to come up with useful commercial applications. So acute is the problem of patented but useless research that, increasingly, universities are simply selling their patents off to companies sometimes called ‘patent trolls’ — which stockpile intellectual property but rarely get inventions to market (see ‘Universities struggle to make patents pay’).

But though the website paid out more than $50,000 in prize money over 30 technology competitions — showing that their users are not short on invention — not a single idea has come close to commercialization. The problem, says co-founder Dan Perez, at the University of Oxford, UK, was that “we gave the universities back the ideas — but they couldn’t do much with them”. That was “demoralizing” for the site’s users, he says: “A lot of universities weren’t even reading the ideas for their own technology.”

The answer? Come at it from the side of the big corporate firms, who work from the view of product needs, rather than browsing lists of university patents, reckons Perez. Hence the link with Samsung, and Perez is hoping that other firms will come on board in future. Users will be able to mix and match different patents to suggest possible products. Will Marblar’s community — some 14,000 have signed up — be worried at Samsung’s entry into what started as a crowdsourcing effort for the good of science? Not a bit of it, says Perez — site visitors are keen to see their suggestions realized in products. (There’s also a strong sense that the site might serve as a recruitment opportunity, with those making the most useful suggestions essentially advertizing their entrepreneurial instincts to Samsung, or any other firm browsing the patents.)

Perez himself, a garrulous American, has essentially switched his PhD studies from biochemistry to technology transfer. He still thinks that Marblar, and its users, can do a better job of unlocking the value of research patents than technology-transfer offices have. “There is no reason for universities and government research labs to be sitting on piles of unused [public] innovation, or worse, selling that innovation to trolls. It’s time they opened up and allow new applications and products to be formed from their [intellectual property],” he says.

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