Student inventors challenge state universities' intellectual property policy

DENVER - Innovation is the basis for any university student and staff effort but, at CU Denver, there’s a fight over who lays claim to the profits and companies developed by students while attending the university.

Caleb Carr is a senior at CU Denver and co-founder of Vita Inclanata Technologies.  His company, which was founded four years ago, is developing a technology for rescue helicopters that is aimed at eliminating the cable swing when a rescuer or basket is lowered to a victim.

Carr served on an Oregon search and rescue team while in high school and found out firsthand how the inability to control the cable swing in the wind can lead to canceled missions and further risk to patients.

Carr lost his good friend and fellow search and rescue teammate Don Gomez in 2009 when heavy winds caused the rescue helicopter to call off the mission after Gomez suffered a heart attack.  Gomez later died after the risky rescue was called off.

“What our technology does is it saves lives, I know from personal experience and also from meeting with a number of crew chiefs and medics who are basically putting their lives on the line,” said Carr.

Carr’s invention will put a sensor on the bottom of the rescue line and another on a lateral running device that is attached to the helicopter door.  The two sensors will talk to one another and determine which way the device will slide laterally to counterbalance the pendulum swing of the cable.

Carr is hoping the result will be a rescue line dropped from a helicopter that has little to no swing to it, creating a safer environment for the rescuer on the other end and reducing the number of canceled missions.

But Vita Inclanata Technologies says its idea hit a snag when CU Denver alerted the team of students that all intellectual property rights belong to the university because the team was using significant university resources.

“They basically said, ‘It’s ours’ and that’s just the tough reality,” said Carr.

Now, Carr and his team of students are fighting the university’s policy, claiming students who create the idea, fundraise to bring the invention to market and promote the new product should hang on to the majority of intellectual property rights.

The policy lies within CU’s tech transfer program.

“CU is an interesting ordeal, because they’re completely self-funded on the tech transfer side, which provides an interesting incentive to make sure that you keep ownership of startups,” said Carr.

CU Denver tells Denver7 its decision on how much of a company’s intellectual property rights to keep is made on a case-by-case basis.

“If a student’s creating a startup company using the university's resources, the intellectual property belongs to the university. You know, if it's something that's solely the student’s invention, then obviously it belongs to the student," said Ken McConnellogue, a spokesman for the University of Colorado.

Carr and his team are fighting the policy because they feel that taking most of all of what students create is causing students to abandon their ideas and inventions.

“I starting meeting more and more students who dropped out, who didn’t create a company even though they wanted to, or are being sued by the institution,” said Carr.

James Vezina is a business student working on the project, who says changing the policy for universities everywhere will grow more ideas, benefiting everyone.

“They’ll learn more, they’ll graduate with way more experience and they’ll have, possibly, a job right out of college,” said Vezina.

The team is working with some state lawmakers to draft a bill that would further protect students.

The bill is set to be introduced and assigned to committee this week.

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