how to strengthen IP education in university ecosystems

IP education

Understanding what intellectual property (IP) is—and why it’s important—is vital for student inventors as they take their innovations beyond the classroom and into the world. IP literacy enables student entrepreneurs to protect their ideas, garner interest from potential investors, and build credentials. To avoid missteps down the line, students should also understand the obligations they may have to their universities as they pursue real-world entrepreneurial pursuits. 

There are varying policies and regulations around the development of IP within institutional settings, and it can be a convoluted process to jump into. While many faculty that seek to facilitate and support student innovation dedicate courses and workshops on the role of IP, there are a number of obstacles to comprehensive education on these issues.

This spring, thanks to generous support from the Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, we conducted a study on IP education with faculty from 15 universities and students from six universities, on the challenges they face in teaching and advancing IP.  Following three focus group conversations, we were able to identify potentially promising—and interrelated—solutions to these issues. Below, we’ve recapped key findings from the study in honor of World IP Day (April 26).

challenge: IP is complicated and requires intensive, years-long experience to fully understand.

IP rights encompass a wide number of regulations and processes, including patents, trademarks and copyrights, some of which are not immediately relevant to student innovators operating at different stages of commercializing their inventions. Legal precedent regularly evolves, sometimes dramatically, which means those teaching must stay attuned to changing rules and requirements to ensure curriculum is relevant and appropriately updated.

Additionally, IP education is not often the sole focus of an entrepreneurial or industrial design course, which can make it difficult for students to grasp the concepts fully, and for faculty to offer the support students need. “You’re trying to incorporate something that takes years of experience, deep expertise in multiple areas, and teach it to someone in 45 minutes to an hour and a half and have them make it stand up against professionals.” said one faculty member.

opportunity: integrate IP education more comprehensively in curriculum.

Faculty and university systems have the opportunity to create capacity for intentional IP educational opportunities, in particular, personal connections like guest-speakers, one-to-one teaching opportunities, and cross-discipline team work. Faculty can demonstrate the importance of IP by incorporating case work examples and applied activities into courses, and focus more of class time on practical utilizations of IP. This would provide opportunities for students to practice IP research, and understand how IP strategy will fit into the future of their innovations.

challenge: breakdown of relationships and communication among different university units or actors.

Lack of collaboration and communication between faculty and administrators can inhibit the university’s ability to support students. Structures and mindsets that encourage competition between schools and departments amplify collaboration barriers. 

This breakdown can contribute to duplicative efforts in the classroom, preventing students from forming productive relationships with faculty who might help identify an IP pathway, and communicating effectively with the tech transfer office. “There isn’t a closing of the loop between the identification of a potential IP pathway and next steps. It tends to happen in a disconnected way, leaving the student without adequate support,” said one faculty member. And not clearly explaining the IP process—including the associated costs—can add to a student’s perception that the university is not supportive.

opportunity: strengthen communication and connection on campus.

Addressing collaboration issues between schools and departments can help mitigate communication gaps. Open communication and a willingness to partner with one another will make it easier to identify pathways and referral mechanisms to support students and faculty. One faculty member noted that “becoming multilingual in terms of being able to speak the different languages that are spoken across our campus” allows stakeholders to connect the dots in the process, making it easier for students to move through their IP pathway.

challenge: unsupportive university policies and structures impede students’ progress around IP development. 

Within the university, core stakeholders and structures like faculty and regulatory departments may be unsupportive and uncollaborative with students. This is demonstrated by a lack of a systematic approach for integrating IP into its courses and structures, which leads to a fragmented approach. 

In addition, university systems and processes may be convoluted, out-of-date, and contradicting, which can slow the productive advancement of IP for student innovations. Administrative departments and faculty may have differing value sets and motivations around IP, so it can be frustrating for students to understand how to move forward.

opportunity: centralize resources that prepare students to navigate the registration process, and structure their IP policy to mutually benefit the university and students.

By collaborating across departments, university staff can create resource hubs that connect students to resources like alumni, administrative representatives, patent lawyers, and librarians. Universities can also implement policies and structures that motivate the development of IP for both faculty researchers, students, and the university at large. This would help counter some of the perceptions of IP as not necessary or conducive to entrepreneurial success. In current systems, faculty may not be incentivized to develop IP alongside student inventors, so it can be helpful to incorporate tenure and promotion processes that reward commercialization and innovation.

It is crucial for student inventors to understand and engage in the IP development process, if they are to smoothly commercialize or license their innovations. The faculty and staff that work to further social entrepreneurship at universities across the country are committed to supporting the inventions and ventures of their students. To create entrepreneurial ecosystems that support students in developing IP, it’s important that universities provide meaningful IP education to students, establish clear communication and goals for stakeholders, and streamline useful internal resources and external connections. While these hurdles may be entrenched and difficult to resolve, addressing these challenges will help position students for success.

Looking for more IP-related resources? Read our reference guide on the role IP rights play in innovation and entrepreneurship or access our Intellectual Property Procedures roadmap, a guide to navigating IP at U.S.-based universities.

Our report, Strengthening University-Based Systems to Support the Development of Intellectual Property (IP) Strategies: Insights from Faculty, Administrators, and Students, outlines elements of an ideal system that supports science- and technology-based students and faculty in developing, understanding, and protecting IP. Download the report here

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