“Would Thomas Edison Receive Tenure at an Academic institution?” That was the question posed by the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) at its 2013 annual conference. Society respects innovation and entrepreneurship, but the tenure system of today’s universities values publication and academic research.
Professors are incentivized to contribute papers to scholarly journals but are rarely compensated for commercially viable research ideas. Because of this, the National Science Board reveals that academic institutions contributed only 6,639 out of the 304,126 patents granted in 2016. That amounts to 2 percent of the total.
Unsurprisingly, the panelists at the NAI conference supported academic recognition for Edison. Still, they worried that many universities’ tenure and promotion guidelines would not reward a faculty member with his commercial success. That is the culture the NAI is seeking to change. This national organization is recognizing the value of innovation in academia and smoothing the way for those discoveries to be shared with the public.
History of the National Academy of Inventors
The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) began as one professor’s dream at the University of South Florida in 2010. Conversations among faculty grew into a national organization in just a few short years. Achieving this widespread outreach involved massive changes, but one thing that has not changed is NAI’s mission.
From the beginning, NAI set out to build a Culture of Academic Invention. It recognizes academic leaders who hold patents, increases awareness of innovation in educational institutions, encourages disclosure of intellectual property, and offers resources to help its members get their inventions to society.
Dr. Paul R. Sanberg is the senior vice president for research, innovation, and economic development at the University of South Florida. He is also an entrepreneur in the field of neuroscience. In 2009, he became curious about how many of his colleagues were inventors like himself.
To find the answer, he organized a luncheon for any USF faculty and staff holding a US patent. When over a hundred staff across all disciplines arrived, he realized patents in university research and innovation needed to be given greater significance.
The University of South Florida launched the USF Academy of Inventors to recognize its innovators’ patents, licensing, and commercialization. Dr. Sanberg shared the concept, and soon other research universities examined their academic cultures and began highlighting faculty inventors who patented discoveries and brought them to the public.
As participating universities joined from every part of the United States, they laid the foundation for the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Since its birth in 2010, the NAI has grown to include over 200 institutions around the world.
The National Academy of Inventors partners with The United States Patent and Trademark Office
On February 16, 2012, the NAI partnered with the United States Department of Commerce, whose mission is to create favorable conditions for economic growth and opportunity for all communities. During the NAI’s first annual conference, David Kappos, former Under Secretary of Commerce and previous director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) honored the organization with national recognition.
At this first conference, members discussed the need for an award to honor outstanding achievements among leading academic inventors. Today, the NAI Fellows Program highlights momentous contributions to society from academic inventors. NAI Fellows have impacted the quality of life, economic development, and societal welfare worldwide.
The NAI and USPTO cemented their working relationship with a five-year Joint Project Agreement in 2022. They are collaborating to make the patent process more accessible to historically under-served communities such as minorities, women, veterans, and individuals with disabilities.
The National Academy of Inventors is disrupting the Culture of Academic Invention worldwide
The NAI’s nationwide influence is changing the accomplishments of academic institutions. It has drawn together over four thousand thought leaders from universities, government agencies, and non-profit research organizations worldwide. Its members hold 44 Nobel Prizes, 53,000 patents, and over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies.