University Researchers Contributing to Technology Markets 1900–85. A Long-Term Analysis of Academic Patenting in Finland
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- Kaataja, S. Minerva (2011) 49: 447. doi:10.1007/s11024-011-9185-z
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Regardless of the increased interest in technological innovation in universities, relatively little is known about the technology developed by academic scientists. Long-term analyses of researchers’ technological contribution are notably missing. This paper examines university-based technology in Finland during the period 1900–85. The focus is on the quantity and technological specialization of applications created inside the universities and in the changes that occurred in scientists’ technological output over nine decades. In the long-term analysis several aspects in universities’ technological contribution, which are typically considered a recent phenomenon, turn out to have long historical roots. Thus the empirical evidence provided in the article challenges views emphasising that the world of science has faced a drastic change in recent decades.
KeywordsAcademic patentingLong-term analysisCommercialisation of university researchUniversity-industry linkage
The attempt to intensify the universities’ role in the knowledge-based economy is well on its way in Europe. Changes in legislation have been made in several countries over the last two decades in order to facilitate technology transfer from universities. In the EU several initiatives concerning the workings of the scientific community have been taken in order to strengthen the continent’s competitiveness in global markets. The common opinion among science politicians is that the academic world must become a greater resource than before for technological innovation.
Greater European interest in universities’ technological contribution also becomes evident in the number of studies on the topic. In recent years several works have been published on the potential of universities to engage in commercial activities and different forms of those activities, attitudes towards the commercialisation of science inside the academic world and university-industry relations (Geuna and Nesta 2006; Kutinlahti 2006; OECD 2003; Schmoch 1999; Jones-Evans 1998). More scholarly attention has also been devoted to technology developed in academia (Lissoni et al. 2008; Balconi et al. 2004; Meyer et al. 2003; Saragossi and van Pottelsberghe de la Potterie 2003).
Articles on the technology developed by university researchers have in common that they are based on relatively short-term data. Most of these works rely on the patents of the universities or individual scientists from the 1980s onwards (e.g. Lissoni et al. 2008; Meyer et al. 2003; Saragossi and van Pottelsberghe de la Potterie 2003). These studies thus focus essentially on the nature of the direct technological contribution of the universities in the era of information and communication technology and biotechnology.
Studies are also needed on researchers’ technological output over a longer period of time than the last 10–30 years. It is this viewpoint to which the article at hand aims to contribute: it provides a long-term analysis of the patented technology developed inside the academic world, and answers are sought to the following questions: to what extent was patented technology developed in Finnish universities 1900–85 and what was its role in the national technology output? What type of inventions did university researchers create? To what extent this technology diffused to producers and was commercialised? Some characteristics of scientists’ technological output in different universities and countries are also considered.
The purpose of what follows is to help form a better understanding of the universities’ role in the technological development during the last one hundred years. At the same time, the article provides empirical evidence to challenge views according to which a great change took place in the universities’ role in society at the turn of the millennium. Thus it contributes directly to the discussion about the role of universities in knowledge-intensive societies.
Sample and Data
Two Finnish universities form the object of the study: the University of Helsinki (UH) and Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) were the two biggest universities in Finland during the 20th century, dominating scientific and technical education and research.1 The analysis is based on the patent records of people working in UH and HUT during the period of 1900–75. A name register of those researchers was created at the first stage of the study. It contains 2,150 individuals2 whose personal patent records were then collected from two databases maintained by the National Board of Patents and Registration of Finland.3
In long-term analysis verification that the people studied were the actual developers of the patented inventions is somewhat challenging. Typically they cannot be contacted directly and other information sources must be used for inventor identification. In the Finnish case mainly patent applications, personal CV’s, biographies and previous research on history of Finnish science and technology were used. This method proved arduous, but effective: only in fourteen cases was it not possible to decide whether the patent(s) did indeed belong to a certain researcher. These patents were not included in the study.
The researchers examined have been marked as developers of 1,021 patents granted in Finland 1891–2004. The data these patents provide is useful only up to the late 1980s because after that the number of patents starts to decrease rapidly due to the absence of patenting by researchers post 1975. Nonetheless, the study by Martin Meyer et al. on Finnish researchers patenting in the United States at the turn of the millennium (Meyer et al. 2003) can be used as a source to illustrate the more recent changes.
Academic Patenting on Quantitative Terms
Of the 1,021 patents granted to UH and HUT scientists, 65.7 % (671) were academic patents – technology developed by the university researchers and patented during their academic careers.4 The fact that patenting concentrated on the period when these people worked at the university is the first sign that there was a clear linkage between technological innovation activities and academic life: these two were not separate spheres of life taking place in different spatial, social or economical contexts.
When the number of academic patentees is compared to the total workforce in UH and HUT, participation in patenting appears somewhat exceptional. From the group of 2,150 researchers studied, 10.5 % (226 individuals) were involved in academic patenting during their university careers. When researchers’ patenting activity is analysed separately in each school the situation does not notably change: 1900–85 the share of researchers who participated in patenting in UH varied between 0.5–4.3 %. In HUT the activity ranged 2.5–14 %. Regardless of the noticeable fluctuations in these figures, they clearly indicate that in both universities the focus has been on teaching and research, while patenting of the research results concerned only the minority of the scientists.5
Despite the fact that only a relatively small group of UH and HUT researchers was responsible for the academic patents, this minority contributed significantly to the national technology output. When academic patents are contrasted to all patents granted to Finnish patentees, a number of technological sectors appear in which UH and HUT scientists have been active developers of applications aimed at commercial markets.
The biggest patent classes of UH and HUT researchers’ academic patents and their share among Finnish patentees 1900–85
Academic patentees %
Academic patentees %
Academic patentees %
G01 measuring, testing
A61 medical or veterinary science, hygiene
A23 foods or foodstuffs
C07 organic chemistry
D21 paper-making, production of cellulose
C09 dyes, paints, polishes natural resins, adhesives
E02 hydraulic engineering, foundations, soil-shifting
C08 organic macromolecular compounds
H01 basic electric elements
B03 separation of solid materials
All patent classes
These figures indicate that the technological contribution of universities has a long history and that it has been significant in quantitative terms. Furthermore, numbers would probably be somewhat higher if patenting in other Finnish universities were also studied.
The Finnish Case in International Comparison
There is currently a lack of long-term analysis of university researchers’ technological output in Europe. As already mentioned, studies focusing on patenting in universities concentrate on recent decades only (e.g. Lissoni et al. 2008; Balconi et al. 2004; Meyer et al. 2003).6 The UH and HUT academic patents cannot therefore be contrasted with other European long-term examples indicating, for example, the share of academic patenting in national technology production.
Interestingly, the results obtained in studies focusing on European academic patenting in the closing decades of the 20th century are very similar to those achieved for Finland in the period 1900–85. In Italy, the technological contribution of the academic world is uncovered in patent applications made to the European Patent Office (EPO) 1978–99. During that period, in 20 % of Italian patent applications concerning drug inventions, the inventor group included at least one academic researcher. In biotechnology their share was as high as 28 % (Balconi et al. 2004, 136–137). In 1987–88, university scientists in West Germany were responsible for 23 % of the national patent applications in the fields of genetics and pharmacy. In laser technology their share of the applications was 13 %, in organic chemistry 10 % and in biomedicine 9 % (Grupp and Schmoch 1992, 110–112).
In addition to the Finnish case, these European examples are valuable because they show that the direct technological contribution of the academic world has been more important than is generally assumed. In individual technological fields the academic world has been responsible for a considerable part of the patented technology in several European countries. However, in light of the UH and HUT academic patents it can also be claimed that researchers contributed to commercially oriented technology long before the rise of biotechnology and ICT at the end of the 20th century, which is often considered a turning point regarding capitalising university research.
The fact that the academic world has been a source of technological solutions for the last 100 years challenges views emphasising that a great change has occurred in the universities’ societal role in recent decades, the best-known examples of these probably being works of Henry Etzkowitz and his concept of entrepreneurial university (Etzkowitz 2003; Leydesdorff and Etzkowitz 2001) and Michael Gibbons et al.’s idea of Mode 2 knowledge production (Gibbons et al. 1994, 3–8). According to the Finnish case, it seems clear that no drastic change from an “institution of pure science” to a “commercially oriented production plant” has taken place. In addition to teaching and research, the development of commercially oriented technology has taken place in the scientific community.
Besides analysing the technological contribution of the academic world at the national level, it is also interesting to compare the inventive output at the level of individual universities. In European science policy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is often held up as an example for the universities in the Old World to emulate: a top-level research university, which is both active and successful in corporate cooperation and in the commercialisation of research. Because of its exceptional role as an acknowledged ideal type of modern university, MIT is a good case against which to compare Finnish researchers’ technological output.
Consequently, how common has participation in the development of commercially oriented technology been in light of patented inventions created inside the university? In 1960–89, altogether 1,070 patents were granted to MIT in the United States. During the last two decades of the 20th century, 60–100 patents were granted to the university annually.7 These figures are several times higher than the number of patents, for example, in Helsinki University of Technology: in 1985–89 MIT was granted eight times more patents than the researchers in HUT (MIT 309 / HUT 41). Nevertheless, MIT also employed significantly more scientists: from the 1960s to the 1980s, the number of researchers in MIT was 4–10 times greater than in HUT.8 At the same time, MIT was granted 2–6 times more patents than scientists in HUT. Thus, the big quantity of MIT patents can be explained by the size of the university. When the patents of the two universities are compared to the number of researchers employed, the technological output is very similar in quantitative terms – nothing indicates that patenting was more common in MIT than in HUT.
Technological Specialization of Academic Inventions
After the quantitative analysis of the academic patents, the focus turns to the technological specialization of inventions developed inside UH and HUT. This way the technological fields and industrial sectors can be identified where university researchers made a contribution in 20th century Finland.
More confirmation of how chemistry and metallurgy have dominated academic patenting appears in Table 1. From the 11 biggest individual patent classes of scientists’ inventions four are in that section (C). Researchers’ contribution to several sectors of chemistry and in metallurgy is a good example of the great applicability chemical research has had for the last 100–150 years. Nevertheless, the biggest classes of academic patents came from different patent sections. It was inventions related to measuring and testing, medicine and foodstuffs that formed the biggest classes of academic patents in UH and HUT.
The fact that measuring and testing inventions form the biggest class of academic patents shows that researchers’ expertise in the construction of scientific instruments has also materialised in the form of commercial instruments. Furthermore, it was mainly equipment destined for measuring and testing in industrial settings that was patented – not scientific instruments. Only a third of the measuring and testing patents were wholly or partially designed for scientific purposes. Another important feature of instrumentation patents was that they were developed in several scientific fields and university departments. Chemists and physicists dominated patenting of instruments but researchers in meteorology, metallurgy, paper and radio technology also developed these inventions. This multidisciplinary nature of instrument patents was the key factor behind their great quantity.
The following two big classes of academic patents – medical or veterinary science, hygiene (A61) and foods or foodstuffs (A23) – are good examples of the technological fields where researchers of a traditional science university have made an important contribution. Overall, it was more common in Helsinki University of Technology to participate in academic patenting during the 20th century than in the University of Helsinki. Nevertheless, technology relating to health and nutrition were technological focal areas of UH researchers. In addition to measuring and testing devices, UH was a birthplace of medicaments, treatment equipment, diagnostic methods and food technology (e.g. inventions in food conservation).
Technological Focal Areas Change over Time
In addition to physics, a more recent change occurred in electrotechnology and biotechnology. The section of electricity had a relatively stable position among patents granted to academics for the most of the 20th century, even if the number of patents was modest compared to chemistry and metallurgy or physics: in the 1970s and 1980s, approximately 7 % of the UH and HUT academic patents were applications of electronics. The share of biotechnology was clearly smaller: before 1985 it was only 1.6 % of UH and HUT academic patents. In the next two decades, during a period of rapid development in electronics (especially in electronic communications) and in biotechnology both in Finland and elsewhere, the situation changed noticeably.
In the group of patents granted to Finnish university scientists in the United States 1986–2000, one field of electrotechnology, namely telecommunications, was the biggest sector. At the same time, biotechnology had risen to fourth place in academic patenting (Meyer et al. 2003, 4). Because researchers’ domestic patenting fell beyond the scope of the study by Meyer et al., it cannot be assumed that electrotechnology would have become the dominating field of academic patenting in Finland during the last 25 years. However, the results indicate that the share of patents in those two fields increased, causing another shift in the focus of the academic patenting at the turn of the millennium.
These changes in the focal areas of academic patenting illustrate the broader transformation that took place in Finnish industry and economy in the 20th century. During that time, Finland gradually turned from being an agrarian country into an industrialised country and finally into a society where the production and consumption of information became a key factor in the national economy. In that process Finland’s position in the global technology markets also changed: the country’s technological dependence decreased and it became an important exporter of high-tech. University researchers also made an important contribution to this development.
Technological Profile of the Academic World
In two patent sections, human necessities (A) and textiles, paper (D), the proportion of patents of the two patentee groups is quite similar, but on closer examination it turned out that there was a clear difference regarding the patent classes into which the inventions fell. In human necessities, 83 % of the researchers’ patents were inventions in medical or veterinary science, hygiene (A61) and foods or foodstuffs (A23), whereas only 16 % of the Finnish patents fell into those classes. Patents granted to Finns were mainly goods for domestic and leisure use or equipment for agriculture and forestry. In those classes UH and HUT researchers received hardly any patents. An equally drastic division is evident in textiles, paper section: 91 % of academic patents were inventions for making paper or cellulose, but among Finnish patentees the share of textile patents was significantly higher.
The biggest classes of academic patents and the focal areas of the inventions developed in universities demonstrate researchers’ expertise in science-based fields of technology. Their technological contribution focused on areas where it is difficult or impossible for people lacking scientific expertise to produce new applications. Thus, academic patentees’ scientific know-how was the key factor in the development of applications intended for commercial markets.
Contemporary European science policy encouraging researchers to commercialise their research has caused controversy in the scientific community. With this in mind it is interesting to note that during the 20th century patents granted to researchers of UH and HUT were typically developed as a part of the everyday scientific work; the inventions were not developed outside the academic world. For example, from early on patents were cited in publications and scientific results were referred to in patent applications. Consequently, according to the Finnish case, research and development of inventions for commercial purposes cannot typically be separated, but scientists had compound careers where the two spheres of life co-existed and only in few cases does this seem to have caused major problems.
These compound careers were carried out in different forms. Sometimes university researchers worked simultaneously in industry as R&D-experts, managers or board members. Official and unofficial consulting was also done to help businesses. An interesting group are the university adjunct professors whose work was mainly accomplished in companies. They formed a linkage between the universities and industry and mediated technical dilemmas that companies faced to be solved at universities. Nevertheless, all these forms of co-operation materialised as academic patents.
Active University-Industry Linkage vs. Modest Commercialisation
By definition a granted patent is a new invention that differs significantly from what is previously known. But this does not imply anything about the importance of the technology developed. Patents need to be transferred to the use of companies and markets and commercialised successfully before they can become commercially and socially important innovations.
Ownership of patents among Finnish patentees and UH and HUT researchers in 1900–2000
UH and HUT researchers
Company or other organisation
Regardless of the fact that the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University of Technology had no official structures specialising in technology transfer before the very end of the 20th century, the majority of the inventions developed by the university researchers found their way to the use of companies. This happened via official or informal contract research or by companies purchasing the rights to technology developed inside the academic world. Thus, from the perspective of the academic patents the 20th century academic world does not appear as an ivory tower or – depending on the viewpoint – a scene of pure science with no contact to the rest of society. The active university-industry linkage was reality long before the establishing of official technology transfer offices that became popular in Finland, too, at the turn of the millennium.
Beneficiaries of the Academic Patenting
But who benefited from the researchers’ technological contribution? When the biggest owners of academic patents of the last century are analysed, it turns out that the group included several large Finnish companies in different industrial sectors: Outokumpu (mining), Orion (pharmaceuticals), Valio (dairy products), A. Ahlström (forest, paper, metal) and Nokia (electronics). For them, cooperation with UH and/or HUT typically lasted for decades and was accomplished by several different researchers. Many of these companies have also maintained collaborative relations with universities until today (Meyer et al. 2003, 5). Besides the large companies, several small or medium-sized businesses were among the big owners of academic patents. A common feature for them was that these companies were operating in R&D-oriented technological fields like biotechnology and instruments.
Nonetheless, the great majority of the companies owned only 1–3 academic patents: for 83 % of businesses technological contacts based on the academic patents were an occasional event and more permanent co-operative relationship with the academia did not develop. What does this reveal about the nature of university-industry linkage? First of all, the result indicates that the technology developed inside the universities has diffused widely to society, and was not centred on any particular group of companies. Secondly, small businesses investing modestly in in-house R&D especially have received help from universities for technological innovation. This became evident in the more detailed analysis of companies with few academic patents.
Financial Value of Academic Patenting
The financial profits of North American university patents have been estimated through the revenues universities gain from licensing and selling the immaterial property rights of the inventions (e.g. Mowery et al. 2004, 102–104). The same approach cannot be used in the European context because when individual researchers carry out the commercialisation of academic inventions, and not the university, as in the US, the data on the revenues does not end up in any particular records.
The same difficulty applies to the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University of Technology: data on the profits of 20th century academic patents is rarely available. Nevertheless, the information that exists indicates that, on average, academic patenting did not produce significant revenue. UH and HUT academic patents include financial success stories producing millions of Euros, but these were rare exceptions.10 This result is also consistent with studies focusing on technology developed inside universities more recently. In the United States, which is the forerunner in the commercialisation of academic research, only a small minority of university inventions has been financially profitable, and a few extremely successful innovations have produced the great profits that are often referred to (Mowery et al. 2004, 6, 69, 127; Mowery and Sampat 2001, 332–334, 353; Nelson 2001, 17). The same applies to Europe (and Finland) in recent times: very few European universities have benefited from the commercialisation of university inventions (Geuna and Nesta 2006, 790, 795, 802. OECD 2003, 72; Meyer et al. 2003, 20–21, 26).
The Finnish case concerning the academic patenting in the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University of Technology indicates that for the last 100 years universities have been also birthplaces of technology intended for commercial markets. Even though only the minority of researchers participated in academic patenting, these inventions developed as a part of everyday academic activities and formed an important part of the national technology output. There is nothing to suggest a fundamental collision between scientific research and commercial activities. Nevertheless, it must also be emphasised that nothing either indicates that the technological innovations developed inside these two Finnish universities generated significant revenues for the inventors or companies responsible for their commercialisation.
At the end of the period studied here (1985) UH employed around 1,845 teachers and researchers and there were 25,500 students (2010 figures are 3,700 and 35,000). In HUT there were 579 teachers and researchers and 8,700 students (2010 1,900 and 14,000). Since 2010 Helsinki University of Technology has been part of the Aalto University that was formed together with the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
Only scientific personnel is examined and among them only those who had more permanent positions inside the scientific community. Therefore, applications developed by administrative staff and PhD students fall beyond the scope of this article. The focus is on professors, assistant professors, lecturers and adjunct professors working in UH and HUT. All HUT faculties are examined, but from UH only the three where patenting is likely to occur are included: Agriculture and Forestry, Medicine and Mathematics and Science. 1,247 of the researchers worked in UH, 1,020 in HUT and 117 worked in both universities during their academic careers.
The Pate-database includes all Finnish patents for the period 1842–1972 (http://patent.prh.fi/pate/). PatInfo-database provides patent information from the later period (http://patent.prh.fi/patinfo/default2.asp).
Of these academic patents, 515 were granted during the period 1900–85, on which this article focuses. For more on the definition of the academic patent, see Meyer 2003.
The fact that patenting was more common in HUT is a predictable result. In any university of technology coming from the Technische Hochschule tradition, the basic motive behind teaching and research is detecting and solving technical dilemmas, and the majority of research sectors are potential birthplaces of new technology. In a Humboldtian science university technology is not in a similar central position, and the development of new technology is possible only in some research areas. In the case of the University of Helsinki these were in the faculties of Agriculture and Forestry, Medicine and Mathematics and Science.
An exception is a study by Torkel Wallmark where he analysed the academic patents of the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden 1945–89. The problem with Wallmark’s study is that he used researcher interviews to collect the patent data and not the actual patent statistics, which impairs the reliability of his results, especially regarding the early years. See Wallmark 1997.
Espacenet; Index of Patents Issued from the United States Patent Office; http://www.uspto.gov/go/stats/univ/org_gr/012_mit_ag.htm. MIT's patents are analysed from the 1960s onwards because MIT appears in the US patent statistics only then. Before that Research Corporation specialising in the university IPR was responsible for the patenting of technology developed in the MIT. (Etzkowitz 1994, 388, 398)
The number of researchers in MIT was calculated from the university’s annual reports and a factual profile leaflet.
Patents by the university adjunct professors who typically worked in industry are not included in the table. The change in the ownership of the immaterial property rights could take place before, during or after the patenting process. It also needs to be kept in mind that technology transfer can occur without changing the ownership of a patent (e.g. licensing).
Among successful innovations is the Orthopantomograph, a dental X-ray developed in UH in the 1950s. Based on this invention, Finnish producers of dental X-ray instruments have had a strong market position until recently. Another example is an ore separator developed in HUT. This instrument made the Otanmäki mines in northern Finland the biggest producer of vanadinium in Europe during the 1970s. An exceptional innovation is the method for preventing hair-loss that sprang up as a by-product of cancer research in UH in the 1970s. Hair care products based on this method (e.g. Helsinki Formula) have generated hundreds of millions of Euros globally.