Exchanging Knowledge and Handling Intellectual Property as a core university activity

One goal of academic research is to make its findings available to the whole of society for the common good. Accordingly, the exchange of knowledge is one of the core statutory activities of the university, apart from research and teaching (§2 para. 4 LHG, university law of Baden Württemberg).

The concept of exchanging knowledge covers, first, passing on and discussing insights and findings among academics and, second, exchanging and developing knowledge through interacting with other partners from academia, industry and society.

The members of Heidelberg University generate knowledge in a particularly broad range of the most varied disciplines. In the following, this knowledge will be understood as intellectual property (IP). The term IP covers all findings and scientific results arising within the sphere of the university (including, as far as legally possible, works protected by copyright), software, inventions, technical know-how, as well as the related property rights in each case (copyright, patents, utility models).

The university fulfils its statutory mission to pass on academic findings for the benefit of the general public through the exchange of knowledge for the common good. In addition, the university strives to increase its own knowledge through cooperating with third parties, as such cooperation is a way of importing knowledge from outside into its departments and institutes. At the same time, it offers an opportunity of generating income that is then reinvested in the university’s IP exchange process.

The exchange of intellectual property is subject to certain rules as laid down below. They are also intended to guarantee that the university publicises the IP of its members, under appropriate conditions and depending on its value, thus heightening the public perception of the university as a place for knowledge enrichment. At the same time, the university guarantees that the IP of its staff, even if passed on to third parties, remains available for its own use in research and teaching. Furthermore, it protects IP by showing concern, both inside and outside its own sphere, for compliance with the rules of good academic practice. 

Forms of intellectual property exchange and minimum standards

The university maintains numerous cooperation agreements with partners from academia, industry and society (e.g. research and teaching cooperation, exploiting inventions, know-how transfer, advice, spin-offs etc.). Regardless of the differing forms these take, the following minimum standards apply:

  • In all cooperation with third parties the reciprocal services and counter-services shall be appropriate and proportionate.
  • The calculations of the university’s services shall normally be based on full costs taking into account a profit mark-up, or on a market price; if there is special public interest a divergent arrangement may be made in exceptional cases.
  • The university shall always retain a user right to the findings for research and teaching, in order to guarantee that they can be used for future studies and projects.
  • Freedom of publication may not be restricted professionally or academically. When publishing research results produced jointly by researchers from several partners, there must be an express mention made of the institutions concerned and their cooperation in the relevant project in order to document these contributions to the outside world.
  • In the case of inventions, the distribution of the respective shares in these inventions shall follow the extent of the contributions made by the employees of the respective cooperation partners involved. The university shall decide on involvement in the individual case on the basis of the following criteria:
    • patentability
    • guaranteeing freedom of research
    • market opportunities
    • usefulness to society
    • social impact
    • state of development (idea, proof of concept, prototype)
    • inventor involvement and readiness to assume risks
  • Investments, exploitation costs and proceeds shall be fairly divided. In the case of cooperation agreement with third parties, distribution shall be in line with the contributions made by the individual partner institutions to the development of an invention - apart from or in addition to statutory regulations.

In the case of cooperation with third parties, compliance with the above-mentioned standards shall be guaranteed in the relevant contractual agreements. The university shall decide on the path to be taken in exploiting IP in the individual case - licence, sale or stake in an undertaking – in consultation with the inventor and, as appropriate, further experts. In its exploitation activities, the university shall work with different agencies as an intermediary, without generally opting for one provider (best partner principle).

Special forms of knowledge exchange

1. Cooperation

Cooperation agreements may be concluded at all stages of knowledge exchange - from basic research to further developing findings or inventions, or to producing a prototype. Possible cooperation partners may be e.g. other research institutions or industrial companies. Cooperation essentially involves the following:

  • cooperation agreements with industrial partners and/or other research institutions – either in the area of basic research, or to further develop promising findings or inventions, or to produce a prototype
  • confidentiality agreements /material transfer agreements on evaluation of the invention by the industrial partner
  • joint patenting and exploitation by the industrial partner, e.g. through obtaining a licence. The above contractual and exploitation standards shall apply here.

2. Privileged partnerships

In the past the university founded a number of special forms of cooperation known as privileged partnerships. That meant setting up an IP exchange scheme going beyond individual topics or projects in conjunction with selected partners from academia, industry and society. Privileged partnerships are thus established with a view to the long term. They have the following additional characteristics:

  • working groups have been combined organizationally by forming joint steering committees or companies in the legal sense
  • working groups have been physically brought together, e.g. through setting up common research areas

Privileged partnerships with industrial companies are established in the context of the university’s own Industry-on-Campus strategy, if they take place close to the university, geographically speaking, or, indeed, on campus. These partnerships particularly serve to interlink the university’s basic research and the application-driven research of industrial partners. An extension of this successful strategy to other partners is planned.

3. Spin-offs

A further form of IP exchange is company spin-offs. The university promotes the founding of companies with a business model based on scientific findings or know-how that originated at the University.

Incentives – opportunities to participate

The university is developing plans to ease the workload of academics from all subject areas when it comes to handling and implementing complex projects in the context of knowledge exchange. In order to create the time resources required for IP implementation, such schemes will free the academics concerned from teaching commitments, for a set period and on appropriate conditions (“transfer periods”).

Through information and incentives, all academics and students at Heidelberg University are to become more aware of the need for exchanging knowledge, and opportunities this brings. This approach is intended to inspire and motivate them to blaze new trails for society and the future through innovation.

The financial involvement of inventers will be based on statutory regulations or collective agreements. First, the inventor shall receive a fee amounting to 30% of the university’s gross income from exploiting the IP under §42 para. 4 ArbEG (law on inventions by employees) if it does so through licensing or sale.

Furthermore, university academics may, under certain conditions, receive special payments for raising private third-party funding in accordance with statutory regulations or collective agreements.

The university will continue to face the challenges of social and economic change and likewise continue to develop new forms of knowledge exchange in close cooperation with its partners from academia, industry and society.