The advent of blockchain technology has given rise to a whole new vocabulary: Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Dogecoin, Bitcoin, Ethereum, Coinbase and other new terms seemingly spring forth daily. And for technology transfer offices, a looming question is whether there’s something to it all that could benefit their operations.
Though contours of the NFT scenario still are evolving, some TTOs are closely watching developments, and at least one is jumping in to test the waters. In early June, the University of California Berkeley completed the first-ever auction of an NFT containing among other documents a digitized version of an invention disclosure from Jennifer Doudna’s invention of CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing. The auction garnered a winning bid of just under $55,000, netting the university about $50,000 after paying 15% of the proceeds to Foundation, an Ethereum-based NFT auction platform. For any subsequent sale of the NFT, UC Berkeley will receive 10% of the proceeds, with Foundation receiving 5%. Of course, UC retains all its rights to the actual patents and related IP.
NFTs are an area of keen interest for anyone thinking about monetizing a possession, and recent headlines tell a story of rich early action that illustrates the promise TTOs are thinking about tapping into. For example, an NFT work by artist Beeple sold for a cool $69 million, Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet garnered $2.9 million, Edward Snowden sold an NFT for $7 million in support of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the NBA is selling millions of dollars worth of NFT video clips of players.
Emily Bauer, director of licensing for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, mused about how NFTs could apply to TTOs that might be interested in monetizing their institution’s possessions. While an NFT can encompass any type of collectible, such as images or music, she says, “it can be expanded to things we hadn’t thought of as marketable: microscope images from a researcher’s lab, video clips from [college or university] sports teams, maps, drawings — anything that is one-of-a-kind.”
The commonality among each headline-grabbing NFT so far, notes Heidjer Staecker, is the “branding that’s associated with it.” Staecker, who is a partner in TreMonti Consulting, LLC, is an attorney with extensive experience in providing advice and assistance to universities, governments, and companies regarding intellectual asset management issues. “You have to build the brand around the asset,” Staecker explains. “That’s what makes it valuable, not the NFT. The assets that a university would be looking at would have to have an inherent value anyway. It could be an artist, an athlete, or a big-name professor. There has to be an inherent value to it.”
UC Berkeley jumped into the NFT arena with both feet, relying on the work of big-name professors like Doudna, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her gene editing work, and fellow Nobel laureate James Allison, who won in 2018 for his research that ultimately led to immunotherapies now being used to treat many forms of cancer.
The NFTs link to online digitized documents — internal forms and correspondence that document the initial research findings of the two famous scientists. In addition to their invention disclosures, internal notes are included, such as the line “This is the data that has got us excited” from Allison’s research.
Rich Lyons, UC Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer, views the auction as a great way to test the potential of NFTs. “Someone might ask, ‘Why would I want a digital version of some internal university form?’ Because it represents something magnificent,” he said. “There are people who recognize and care about symbols of great science, and even if they never intend to resell the NFT, they want to own it and they want resources to go back to Berkeley, where the basic research behind these Nobel Prizes came from, to support further research.”