At first the problem seemed like a mechanical issue. A piece of machinery failed to operate properly. A rescue mission had to be aborted. Someone died.
Caleb Carr was there when it happened, a wide-eyed, fifteen-year-old member of the Explorers, a volunteer group in Oregon that assisted the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team. During a 2009 training exercise on Washington’s Larch Mountain, veteran tracker and trainer Don Gomez collapsed from an apparent heart attack. A couple of the Explorers administered CPR. An emergency medical tech produced a defibrillator.
The group called for a helicopter to rush Gomez to a hospital. But the helicopter couldn’t safely haul up the 57-year-old patient on a litter through the wind and the dense canopy of evergreens; there was too much pendulum sway in the copter’s hoist mechanism to attempt such a thing. It’s not clear that a successful air transport would have altered the outcome — the team’s efforts to revive Gomez had failed — but the inability of search-and-rescue to evacuate one of its own stayed with Carr.
Over the next few years, Carr logged thousands of hours with the Explorers. Several of the missions involved body recoveries.
One fall day in 2012, just weeks after he’d started as a freshman at the University of Colorado Denver, Carr walked into the office of Randall Tagg, a UCD physics professor. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Carr’s interest in possibly pursuing a degree in biomedical physics, but Tagg is the sort of adviser who likes to know something about a student’s background and passions. The two began to talk about search and rescue, and Carr brought up the problem with the helicopter hoist mechanism.
The meeting proved to be a fortuitous one. As it turned out, Tagg had experience with a similar problem; years earlier, he’d supervised a student’s basic research on “controlled chaos” that had led to a grant from the Office of Naval Research, which was looking for ways to improve the operation of cranes that transferred loads from ship to ship in turbulent seas. Tagg believes in encouraging students to innovate, and the hoist problem struck him as a tremendous learning opportunity.
“We chatted for an hour, and he said, ‘Why don’t you fix it?’” Carr recalls. “Within a week, I had my own lab and my own team.”
Carr was able to recruit several other undergraduates to help him, all of them donating whatever time they could spare. The project had little overlap with their coursework but proved to be an education in itself. They studied motors and motion-control systems, gathered data on pendulum sway using microcontrollers and accelerometers. They consulted experts and visited the NASA Ames Research Lab, which is engaged in related research on helicopter control issues. Eventually the team began to design a hoist system on a rail. A computer-generated algorithm would dictate how to reposition the machinery on the rail in order to adjust its pivot point as needed to counteract the pendulum swing.
The journey from concept to designing a prototype took years. Now a senior, Carr plans to apply soon for provisional patents for the technology his team devised. He’s even put together a startup, Vita Inclinata Technologies, to help bring the product to market, with shares in the company distributed among his team. But he’s also come to realize that the problem he set out to solve isn’t simply a mechanical one; it’s also a legal and philosophical battle over who owns the results of student innovation.
Over the course of his college career, Carr has come into contact with scores of other student inventors, designers and tinkerers. Chatting with them about their ideas as well as his own, he’s detected notes of concern — and sometimes indignation and fear — about the murky status of student intellectual-property rights. Carr decided it would be a good idea to look into the University of Colorado’s IP policies. He met with the head of CU’s Technology Transfer Office and learned that, depending on various factors, such as whether the discovery in question made “substantial use of university resources,” the university could claim 75 percent of ownership and 75 percent of any revenue generated by the discovery.
“By being a student, you inherently agree to the policy,” Carr notes. “Basically, you’re not able to do anything using the resources of campus, but what resources? We’re talking about students who create in their dorm rooms, in the library, in labs. Do they have the freedom to talk to professors? Can they take what they’re working on in senior design classes and run with it? I had all these questions, but I wasn’t getting any clear answers on what I can and can’t do.”
Thanks to his pesky questions, Carr has emerged as a key figure in a modest but growing student movement that’s seeking to reform and clarify campus IP policies across the country. The group he helped found, Students for Intellectual Property, has engaged with lawmakers and education officials on a state and national level — and focused on Colorado’s public university system as particularly ripe for change.
Carr contends that the system has failed to keep up with the evolving nature of student innovation, failed to adapt antiquated policies aimed at faculty and graduate-level researchers to a world in which undergrads are coming up with new apps and launching their own startups. As he sees it, an approach that was supposed to protect the university’s interests as well as those of its researchers ends up discouraging rather than fostering new ideas.
“I kept meeting students who said, ‘I have this startup idea, but I don’t want to take it to the school,’” Carr says. “They’re paying for labs and other services, but they’re afraid the university will take their idea. Some students drop out to pursue their ideas.”
“I think most universities have a broken IP environment,” says Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group, a Boulder venture-capital firm, and co-founder of Techstars, a startup accelerator. Feld, who started his first software company while he was a student at MIT, explains in an e-mail why he’s enthusiastic about Carr’s campaign: “State-funded institutions, or institutions that receive major government research funds, have lost track of a lot of perspective around what they are doing and how they are being additive. Most take very short-term, opportunistic views that create friction in the innovation process and undershoot in the long term.”
CU officials maintain that their IP policy doesn’t need fixing and favors students in many instances. At the same time, they acknowledge that the larger question of how best to encourage student creations is an unsettled one. “Our technology transfer office was set up with faculty in mind,” says Ken McConnellogue, CU’s vice-president for communication. “These students raise a fair question. This is a national issue.”
Carr’s team resolved not to let the uncertainty about ownership derail their research. “We decided this technology was more important than anything CU can do about it,” he says. “So we continued it. But it sparked a bug in me to try and solve this problem, because I thought the situation was ridiculous.”
According to one industry estimate, the commercialization of products based on academic research now generates around $22 billion in annual sales. Yet the history of technological progress over the past half-century is spattered with messy, sometimes ruinous squabbles pitting universities against student researchers over control of intellectual property. Sometimes the dispute leads to court and ties up promising scientific innovations in litigation for years; in a few instances, claims of fraud or theft have even led to criminal prosecutions.
One of the most infamous dust-ups concerns a piece of tech now taken for granted, the invention that made the Internet accessible to the world at large: the lowly web browser. In 1993, Mosaic, the first browser to use graphics and a point-and-click interface rather than rely on text commands, was developed by grad-student programmers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. After graduation, several of those students went on to design a much-improved browser, Netscape Navigator, making use of Mosaic’s open-source code. That led to claims and counterclaims about trademark infringement and royalties; rather than accept an offer of stock valued at $8 million from the upstarts, the university pursued legal action, wrangled a $2.7 million settlement — and watched Netscape and Mosaic quickly become obsolete as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, built around the same open-source code, came to dominate the field.
A less well-known but more troubling case concerns Petr Taborsky, a chemistry student at the University of South Florida who was doing research on a clay-like material for a private company that had contracted with the university. Taborsky claimed that after the project ended, he discovered on his own a technique for using the material to filter ammonia out of polluted water. Although Taborsky was eventually granted patents for his discovery, he was also charged with theft of intellectual property and trade secrets. In 1990, after refusing to sign over his first patent to USF, he went to prison for ten months, including time on a chain gang in a maximum-security penitentiary. He later declined an offer of clemency, saying that accepting it would amount to an admission of guilt.
Such cautionary tales have prompted colleges and universities to come up with IP policies designed to head off rather than incite litigation. Most major schools now have tech transfer offices that help to set policy and advise faculty and researchers working on possibly patentable ideas. The actual revenue split can vary greatly from school to school or by state. For example, the policy for Minnesota state colleges and universities declares unequivocally that student IP rights “belong to the student who created the work.” Ohio lawmakers took exactly the opposite approach, awarding the rights to all discoveries resulting from work in any publicly funded lab or “research facility” to the college in question.
The Ohio statute is unusual in that it makes no distinction between the work of students and that of paid researchers. In most situations involving federal grants or paid research, the terms concerning who owns the work and any revenues generated are well defined at the outset. By the same token, few institutions seek to make a claim on intellectual property that students develop entirely on their own, without availing themselves of university resources or funding. Between those two scenarios, though, is a vast gray area — the one that Caleb Carr wandered into when he followed his passion for improving a machine that could save lives.
As befits an ambitious polymath, Carr has a lot of passions. At 22, he also has a more expansive frame of reference than many of his peers. His father, a pastor from New Zealand, met his mother while in school in Oregon. Carr spent his early years in New Zealand before the family moved to Portland when he was twelve. His academic achievements in high school, coupled with all that search-and-rescue community service, helped him land a full scholarship to UCD. Despite his course load, he’s continued to volunteer with a search-and-rescue team in Adams County, joining in more than a dozen missions during the 2013 Boulder floods.
He’s now majoring in neuroscience and planning on pursuing a master’s degree in health-care policy before going to medical school. He’s interned at the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office, serves in student government and sits as a student rep on the university’s educational policy and standards committee. His résumé lists stints as a CPR instructor and as a UCD “ambassador” in Rwanda. On top of all that, he’s also taken on the job of being the university’s mascot, Milo the Lynx, at rallies and sporting events. “The suit is disgusting,” he reports, “but you get to be a kid for an hour or two.”
Carr, in short, is a networker and people person. He’s Linked In and well-friended. Some of his most valued connections stem from his selection two years ago as a University Innovation Fellow, a program funded by the National Science Foundation and overseen by Stanford University and VentureWell, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship on college campuses. Hobnobbing with other fellows helped to energize his activism on the IP issue; it also was a chance to compare notes with aspiring innovators on other campuses who were fighting similar battles.
“I met a student from Ohio who paid $20,000 a year, on top of tuition and fees, so that the lab space he was using couldn’t be construed as part of the resources of the university,” he recalls. “I thought that was complete crap. It made no sense.”
Through the program, Carr also encountered Vi Tran, a graduate of Washington State with degrees in bioengineering and management information systems. Although their initial conversations about the subject were by videoconference rather than in person, Carr and Tran became co-directors of Students for Intellectual Property. Tran is also the CFO of Carr’s startup, and the two have established a nonprofit foundation that they hope will eventually provide grants and scholarships for student innovators. All of which keeps both of them very busy.
“We talk on a daily basis,” Tran reports. “I feel like I’m working a hundred hours a week. A lot of the outward communications are handled by Caleb, and I handle the internal world of these organizations.”
Students have been strongly supportive of their efforts, Tran says, but they’ve also heard from faculty and education officials who’ve urged them not to push too hard: “We’ve been warned that if we go against these major research universities, we’ll be crushed. It’s a little bit daunting to think we’re making enough noise that they’re taking notice of us now.”
Aside from Tran, several of Carr’s closest allies in the IP battle are in the trenches with him at UCD. And they’re not all lab geeks. James Vezina isn’t an inventor — he’s studying finance and economics — but he sought out Carr after coming across his profile on LinkedIn. The 22-year-old Vezina is now director of government relations for Students for Intellectual Property, working on possible reforms through state legislation.
“The whole business world is changing to more entrepreneurial activity,” Vezina notes. “People don’t go to school and have one job for the rest of their lives. They have to create their own thing. That really excites me. Maybe I’ll have my own business some day. I love the idea of students going to educate themselves, creating something they can feel proud of while they’re still at school.”
Dominic Kuljis first got to know Carr when they were both freshmen and Kuljis loaned Carr his longboard so he could fetch his lab notes. Now a senior chemistry student, Kuljis has spent long hours with his friend working on the hoist project and sitting through sometimes confusing, sometimes testy meetings with university officials about IP policy. He remembers finding out, early in his junior year, that UCD might own 75 percent of the technology he and other members of Carr’s team had developed largely on their own time.
“I thought it was obnoxious,” he says. “I understand there is a certain degree the university should be compensated in many cases, but I thought 75 percent was too much. It makes you think twice before you do something at the university — which shouldn’t happen. If universities were more up front about their IP policies, it would make a great environment.”
But Kuljis has seen indications that the administration may be more willing now to discuss and try to clarify the issue, thanks to Carr’s persistence. “That’s what I love about working with Caleb,” he says. “We never hit a dead end, and he’s always coming up with new ideas. He doesn’t let small failures bother him. Bridges may burn, but you can always build a new one.”
Half a century ago, the prospect of a battle over intellectual-property rights would have been all but unthinkable on most college campuses — largely because the pecking order in academia was as pervasive as it was unyielding. Back when R L Widmann was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for a professor to assign a class of grad students to research various aspects of one topic, then incorporate that research into a book published under the professor’s name. But the professor didn’t always have the last laugh, since the university typically held the copyright to any textbooks published by its employees.
“The model was that the professor was the master and the student was the apprentice,” Widmann recalls. “That model is drifting away from us. But there’s still a lot of thinking that the professor or the university owns the intellectual property, regardless of who created it.”
Widmann taught in the English department at CU’s Boulder campus for almost forty years. In the early 2000s she became involved in an effort to overhaul the university’s IP policy, which hadn’t been revised since 1985 — and thus was mum on matters ranging from digital media to online content to just about any kind of “educational materials” that weren’t textbooks. Still, it wasn’t just the policy’s definitions of technology or creative work that were out of date, she notes, but its presumptions about how IP was being produced.
“The field changes so fast,” Widmann says. “I had to fight to get the word ‘students’ included. A lot of faculty weren’t thinking about how students contribute to the development of intellectual property. I kept digging my heels in. There weren’t that many undergraduates engaged in entrepreneurial ventures at that point.”
Widmann remembers “mind-numbing discussions” among the faculty and staff working on the policy about what constituted “substantial use” of university resources. If a professor wrote a novel on a laptop furnished by CU, did that matter? If a student discovered something in a university lab but was not under the supervision of a professor, did the university have a claim? The group couldn’t anticipate every scenario, of course, but they tried to develop rational guidelines.
“If the student is setting things up without using university resources, of course the student should own it,” Widmann says. “But when those resources are used, somebody’s got to figure out how much each person in that situation owns.”
Widmann retired from CU two years ago and now works with an education-oriented nonprofit in Washington, D.C. But she still takes an interest in IP issues and is a member of the board of directors of Students for Intellectual Property. She calls Carr a “bright spark” who’s asking the right sort of questions about the current policy.
“He’s obviously very committed about this, but I don’t know if he has the information he needs,” she says. "My hope is that reason will prevail here and that a solution will be found that doesn’t cut out students. I don’t know if the hurdle is monetary or philosophical or political.”
CU spokesman McConnellogue says the references in the policy to a 75-to-25 split refers primarily to revenue generated from faculty research: “Our technology transfer office encourages students, and we claim zero ownership and royalties of student IP — except when they’re doing it under the auspices of the university. It’s not practical for us to write a policy that anticipates all forms of university contribution. The vast majority of it is probably obvious. We feel the policy has enough flexibility to make those judgment calls.”
McConnellogue cites one recent example of a student pursuing a doctorate in chemistry who came upon a commercially promising discovery, quite apart from his degree requirements; CU made no claim on his discovery. But Carr points to language in the policy that seems to muddle the distinction between students and employees — and even tends to treat students on scholarships (such as Carr) the same as employees working on grants.
“What scares me as a student innovator,” Carr says, “is that when I asked CU Tech Transfer, I was told that talking to a professor, working in a common shop space open to all students, or just having a place on campus to store my project would constitute a significant use of resources.”
Carr says he’s gone around and around with university officials about whether using a CU-owned drill press or a saw could make his work subject to the policy — and has never received clear answers. Last year, shortly after an article appeared in Fast Company about Carr’s campaign, the Technology Transfer Office unveiled a new “guide to undergraduates” on its website. That document states that the use of “commonly available facilities such as student shops, libraries, or other general purpose facilities” doesn’t entitle the university to assert a claim on student IP. But it also caps the use of CU “funds” at under $5,000 and contains other linguistic oddities that make the whole matter as clear as sludge. “By coming out with an undergrad IP policy, they just added more ambiguity to it,” Carr insists.
From the university’s point of view, ambiguity can be a good thing. “There is what I would call a deliberate ambiguity in the policy,” McConnellogue says. “The reason it’s there is to give us the flexibility to look at these things on a case-by-case basis. You can’t articulate every contingency. But policy aside, we tend to err in favor of students when these issues come up.”
Yet, given the hierarchical power structure that still prevails on most college campuses, the flexibility seems to be all on one side. Lucky Vidmar, a patent attorney who’s running for a seat on the CU Board of Regents, says the university should be doing what it can to clarify its IP policy and encourage student innovation.
“In IP law, a lot of things aren’t clear,” Vidmar notes. “Sometimes that’s by design. If you have two big companies, they have the resources to work it out. But you start talking about student innovation, and the lack of clarity can have a chilling effect. A few thousand dollars in legal fees to clear up the ambiguity may be the difference between go or no go. We want students to be out there innovating, tinkering and maybe creating new companies. That’s in the best interest of the state as a whole. The last thing we want is some university policy standing in the way of that.”
McConnellogue points out that CU has a faculty committee that reviews IP issues and seeks to resolve disputes over discoveries internally. The university hasn’t had any epic struggles over the next Instagram or Snapchat, which raises questions about whether the current policy is as much of a buzzkill as Carr suggests. “Is this a real problem we need to solve?” McConnellogue asks. “We’re not seeing a groundswell of this.”
Carr concedes that it’s difficult to prove that the world is losing out on great inventions because of myopic IP policies; after all, CU’s stance didn’t stop his own work on the hoist. His group’s materials do include an anonymous letter from a UCD student who claims to have developed “a highly innovative technology” as an undergrad but then distanced himself from the university in its commercialization, out of fear that his discovery would be appropriated by the school.
“CU policy does not make a clear distinction between policies governing faculty and staff, funded students, and unfunded students,” the inventor writes. “For students who pay tuition — frequently amassing significant debt to do so — this policy is at best absurd and at worst ethically questionable.”
A Students for Intellectual Property review of IP policies on other Colorado campuses indicates that CU is hardly alone in demanding a majority share of ownership and royalties stemming from student discoveries, provided those discoveries involve university resources. Depending on the circumstances, Colorado State University’s policy can be slightly more generous, offering the creator a 35 percent share. But the University of Northern Colorado, Adams State University and Colorado School of Mines claim up to 100 percent of the ownership and royalties. SIP couldn’t locate any IP policy for several public institutions, including Metropolitan State University of Denver, Fort Lewis College and Western State Colorado University.
Carr’s group is now seeking to get a late bill before the state legislature that would require publicly funded colleges and universities to have clearly defined IP policies that are accessible to students as well as staff.
They are also proposing that any revenue from student innovation be split 75-25 in favor of the students. McConnellogue says he expects that CU would oppose such legislation, if it ever materializes. “I don’t think legislation is going to solve this,” he adds. “From our viewpoint, the system is working.”
Vezina, the students’ government-relations point man, found out just how stiff the opposition could be when he scheduled a meeting recently with one state representative to discuss sponsoring the bill. The lawmaker, who was unfamiliar with the issue, invited paid lobbyists for CSU and the Colorado School of Mines to the meeting to present their side of the story, too. Vezina says the “Mines guy” cautioned him to be careful about what he wished for, vowing that attempts to change the school’s IP policy would simply make it more restrictive.
“The legislator asked them to leave and then kind of apologized for them trying to take over things,” Vezina says.
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But in other quarters, the idea of students asserting greater ownership of their work doesn’t sound quite so outlandish. Like Widmann, UCD professor Tagg grew up in a system that made sharp distinctions between the humble coursework of undergrads and the rarefied research of faculty; as a mentor to students like Carr, it’s not a model he has imitated.
“Over time it’s become clear that everyone benefits if that boundary becomes more permeable,” Tagg says. “Students are getting involved in research and coming up with their own ideas, and that’s great. The more generous you can be on this issue, the more we’re going to encourage students to be creative and add to Colorado’s economy. I see all kinds of opportunities for that.”
Carr says his startup has attracted attention from investors as well as the military, which is interested in the helicopter-hoist applications to battleground medical evacs. He’s deep in the graduate-school selection process right now, having applied to Harvard, George Washington, New York University and several other grad programs dealing with health-care policy. Amid all of that, his studies and his Milo the Lynx duties, he still found time to show up a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to urge support for revamping the state’s IP policies. His time was brief, but the reception was positive.
“They want to have a longer discussion about this next month,” he says. “I’ll be there.”