Aris Melissaratos, senior advisor to the president on technology enterprise development at Hopkins, came on board six years ago to make commercialization a priority at an institution with a culture of freely exchanging ideas — emphasis on the "free."
He sees success in the numbers: The university's portfolio of active patents grew by nearly 50 percent in the last five years, to more than 2,100. Hopkins research launched 61 startup companies over the same period, and the university's royalty revenue from licenses jumped from $7 million to $16 million.
"On the other hand, because we do so much research, that's a very small number," Melissaratos said, referring to the royalties. "Ideally, you want that number to be an order of magnitude larger. That's my goal. … I think that's possible. The reason why we're not there is, up until 10 years ago, we didn't pay attention to any of this stuff."
Phil Robilotto, assistant vice president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore's Office of Technology Transfer, which recently doubled its licensing officers from two to four, said he also sees improvement on his campus. The number of "disclosures" — faculty telling the office about research with commercial potential — hit 130 last school year, up from the usual 90, he said.
"I really would expect to see a lot of positives coming out of the region in the next couple of years for sure, given all the effort that's been placed on it recently," Robilotto added.
Not all the startup companies spawned by local universities are built around patents. Analytical Informatics, a Baltimore healthcare software company spun out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore about a year and a half ago, has none.
Chris Meenan, the four-person company's co-founder and chief executive, has a "weird, visceral" dislike of software patents — and not just because it takes several years and thousands of dollars to get one. He's part of the open-source movement in the tech sector that values a freer flow of ideas and code.
"There's a lot of people, especially in software, that are patenting everything, like business processes," he said. "I'm trying to solve problems in health care, so it's hard if Microsoft holds patents on every idea. Or Google. How are you supposed to innovate?"
Still, he figures the absence of intellectual-property protection is a turnoff for venture capitalists. So Analytical Informatics' software is copyrighted. So far, Meenan says, the feedback he's getting is that a copyright is "not as good as a patent, but it's still something." And his company made the cut to round two — the current round — of the state's new InvestMaryland Challenge for seed and early-stage funding.
Personal Genome Diagnostics does have patents, licensed from Hopkins. Diaz, the Hopkins oncologist, helped start the company two years ago based on cancer genome sequencing he and others at the university were doing — "seeing what makes cancers tick."
"We started getting requests all over the world: 'Can you sequence my patient's tumor?' " he said. "It's not something that can be done in our academic lab; we're just not set up for that. So we spun off PDGx."
The company has outgrown its space in the biotech park next to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It's in the midst of moving to Canton.
Dr. Victor Velculescu, a fellow co-founder and Hopkins oncologist, said he's seen definite growth in entrepreneurial efforts in his two decades at the university. What strikes him as lacking in Baltimore, compared with big patent regions like Silicon Valley, is a culture steeped in venture capital and startup business expertise.
He was an undergraduate at patent powerhouse Stanford University in California and remembers seeing venture capitalists and entrepreneurs on campus all the time. Personal Genome Diagnostics didn't need venture capital to launch, he added, but many startups do.
Diaz, for his part, declares himself "a little bit bored" with the West Coast and Boston biotech hubs. He thinks Baltimore is more creative. He has high hopes for the area, not just his company.
"It would be absolutely wonderful if this were just one of the many companies that could develop here … in the biotech field," he said. "Because I think it would bring not only jobs but a lot of excitement to the area as well."