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03/29/94

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University-industry relations often don't fit stereotypes

STANFORD -- * The founders of Varian began their own company not only to make a profit but to create a more academic-like environment to work in than they found at Stanford University after World War II.

  • The "industrialist" who first built a real-world application for fiber optics was a young professor in a medical school looking for a better way to treat patients with stomach problems.
  • In the high-stakes race to map human disease genes, some university scientists have taken to naming the genes they have mapped by internal laboratory numbers so they can publish results that will please funders without giving away valuable information to other scientists in the race.

These three case studies, presented at a March 18-20 conference at Stanford on the research university's role in technology transfer, indicate how risky it is to cling to stereotypical images of the university professor and the industrialist. The conference was sponsored by the Stanford Center for Economic Policy Research and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The university professor sometimes is motivated by more practical considerations and real-world problems than he or she is given credit for, conference participants said, and the industrialist sometimes does very basic, long-term research that doesn't support his or her image as a raider of universities to turn quick profits.

"Too frequently discussions of university-industry relations characterize the flow of knowledge as unidirectional, from the university to industry," said Timothy Lenoir, a historian in Stanford's Program in History and Philosophy of Science who prepared the case study of how Varian transformed practice in chemistry through its development of nuclear magnetic resonance.

Lenoir modified what he called the "classical history" of Stanford's role in spawning Silicon Valley.

"I have emphasized the importance of culture and a set of compatible values as crucial to making the exchange of ideas, machines and techniques possible," Lenoir said, "and I have tried to indicate that the values are not just those of the academy but rather those shared and constructed by a more extended community."

Varian's founders transferred "some pretty nice ideas" from Stanford's physics department to Varian, Lenoir said, "but they weren't anything like the chemical analysis techniques that ultimately transformed chemists' practices."

Part of the founders' motivation for starting the company, he said, was feeling too restricted in the university environment, where the goals of their funders - first the Sperry Co. and later the federal government - tried to steer them away from what they were most interested in pursuing.

Stanford economist Nathan Rosenberg presented a strikingly different case - his study with Annetine Gelijns of Columbia University on improvements in health care that occur because of medical device innovation.

"It is noteworthy that, in a world where telecommunication systems are now being transformed by fiber optics, the very first industrial application of this revolutionary material was achieved at a university medical school," they wrote.

The theoretical work on the possibility of transmitting images along an aligned bundle of flexible glass fibers was first reported in the early 1950s in the journal Nature, where it was read by Basil Hirschowitz, a young academic gastroenterologist disenchanted with the semi-flexible gastroscope he had to use to view the upper gastrointestinal tract.

Hirschowitz formed an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Michigan to develop a workable fiber optic instrument for seeing inside the upper GI tract. Later, the group acted as consultants to a manufacturing company's engineering staff, which had been having difficulties getting the making of glass fiber off the ground.

The "Model T" of fiber optic endoscopy was introduced for sale in 1961, and its use rapidly spread. Endoscopes of this design are now the central component of what is known as minimally invasive diagnosis and therapy for many health problems.

"It is estimated that by 1995 more than 4 million minimally invasive procedures will be performed each year in the United States alone, which is roughly twice as many as in 1990," Rosenberg said.

Unlike the field of biotechnology, in which the basic discovery of recombinant DNA technology at the University of California-San Francisco and at Stanford has directly contributed to the industrial development of new drug therapies, medical devices are more commonly generated in the industrial world and developed by clinical faculty in medical schools who are anxious to improve treatments through incremental innovation, Rosenberg reported.

"Innovation is a means for enhancing the professional status of particular disciplines," he said. "It is therefore not surprising that users - beyond providing feedback - play an active role in the post-introduction improvement process" of medical devices.

"Our analysis indicates that the competitive success of a particular firm often hinges on forging close cooperation with medical specialists in academic centers," he said, and competition among different medical specialists who treat the same major medical conditions is an important factor in influencing innovations.

Stephen Hilgartner of the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine at Columbia presented another case study he prepared with Sherry Brandt-Rauf, also of Columbia, on how information flows in a particular branch of molecular genetics. Because of the great commercial potential of their work, molecular geneticists face many strategic considerations concerning how, when and with whom to share information, Hilgartner said.

The researchers looked at the data stream involved in efforts to identify and clone human disease genes. During the course of hunting for a gene, researchers find it useful to construct a physical map, called a "contig" map, which consists of an ordered collection of clones that overlap, spanning the region of interest in a contiguous array, or contig.

Distributed collaborations could be constructed to link researchers internationally, he said, with daily communication proceeding by electronic mail and air courier. The researchers found, however, that no one involved in the hunt for disease genes was providing such unrestricted, real-time access to the evolving data under their control.

"On the contrary, a variety of mechanisms is typically used to restrict access to these data streams," Hilgartner said. Those mechanisms include holding the information privately in the lab as contig map production proceeds, providing delayed access so there is a significant gap between what the lab will provide others and what it knows, and data isolation, the most controversial, where access is provided to isolated portions of the data stream so that it cannot be readily reassembled in other laboratories.

Some scientists, he said, have "even renamed publicly available clones to obscure their identity, a practice so controversial that one human geneticist, in a flourish of hyperbole, argued at a public meeting that people who engage in it 'deserve to be shot.' "

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