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Discovery Discovery Newsletter December 2000
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by Becky Mahurin

Universities in this day are very interested in facilitating economic development activities in their region. Of particular interest are new businesses in the high-tech area. New and expanding businesses provide student internships, employment for graduates, sponsored and collaborative research, potential licensees for new technologies and, of course, increased tax base to support education. And, high-tech businesses in the Gallatin Valley have an average wage almost double that found in the community as a whole.

Universities are creating technologies that have potential for start-up companies. Also, universities have talented faculty and students who may be interested in trying their hand at a commercial endeavor complementary to their technical interests. So spin-off companies are challenges. Are there inherent conflicts of interest, conflicts of commitment, state statutory issues, even IRS issues? Often, yes. Over the next few months, I will address some of the issues that academia faces in working with faculty and their start-ups.

Let me also make clear that this is an evolving area. Many universities are working to meet the challenges associated with spin-offs, knowing, as we do, that the benefits to the area economy can be significant. Strategies to deal with the issues that I will address are somewhat fluid. There is no blueprint to follow. And, I would welcome any input faculty have in regard to mitigating the challenges which ensue.

Conflict of Interest

University administrations are especially concerned about conflict-of-interest issues regarding spin-off company formation. Federal conflict-of-interest policies must be taken into account. Both NIH and NSF have policies stating that if an investigator has equity of 5 percent or greater or has/receives value of $10,000 or more from a company, then a review must be performed by the university to determine if a conflict exists. If so, the conflict must be managed or eliminated. Montana State University has adopted this conflict-of-interest policy for all research, not just federally sponsored research.

Other circumstances may also constitute conflict of interest and must be considered when allowing for a spin-off company involving a faculty member of the university. Is the faculty/founder an officer of the company? Does the faculty/founder perform paid consulting for the company? Does the faculty/founder have sponsored research in his/her university lab from the company? Does the faculty/founder perform research for competitors of his/her company in the university lab? Is the faculty/founder on either an advisory board or board of directors for the company? Some universities do not allow a faculty/founder to accept sponsored research from his or her company. Many do not allow a faculty/founder to hold a line position or be an officer of the company.

How many of the above will be allowed? Generally no more than two or three of the above situations (including holding equity) are allowed. Each situation is unique and must be decided on a case-by-case basis.

If yhou have questions about conflict of interest, please contact me at 994-7868. In an upcoming column, I'll address the issue of who owns the faculty/founder's intellectual property.

Becky Mahurin, Director of the Technology Transfer Office at MSU.



© 2000 Montana State University-Bozeman

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