Innovation: Montpellier has ideas... and patents!

In early March, theINPIthe public body responsible for registering and issuing industrial property titles, published its traditional list of the top 50 patent applicants for 2022*. The good news is that the University of Montpellier has entered the list in 49th place, ranking de facto among the top 10 higher education establishments in France with the most patent applications (21). Interview with Philippe Combette, Vice-President in charge of innovation and partnerships at the University of Montpellier.

This 2022 ranking marks the University of Montpellier's entry into 49th place in terms of the number of patents published, both by private companies and government bodies. Can we say that this distinction is an indicator of innovation?

For the first time, the University of Montpellier has made it into the top 50. We're even in the top 10 of French universities. Montpellier is home to a large number of research organizations, with almost 5,000 researchers... But there are no major corporations in the area. What was long considered a disadvantage, i.e. research with no industrial applications, has given us great agility and an appetite for breakthrough innovation.

What's the point of registering a patent for a higher education establishment?for a higher education establishment?

Some people think that patenting is unnecessary. Why not? The day-to-day work of researchers is to do open science, to make their discoveries available to a community, to produce knowledge. This is not the same philosophy as a patent, which is used to protect, negotiate and capture financial resources.

So a patent is not an end in itself?

As I see it, innovation is an idea that has found a market. With the notion of exploiting academic research or exploiting industrial research with a view to selling an object, software, a technology transfer used in the production of... We're talking here about concrete, monetizable things. It's one thing to write patents, it's quite another for these patents to lead to operating licenses. Without an operating license, a patent is useless, except to protect an idea. An idea may be attractive on paper, but never be commercially exploited. For example, a concept turned into an object may be so complicated to manufacture that, from a financial point of view, it will never be profitable.

How does the patent application process work?

When a researcher or teacher-researcher has an idea for which it would be interesting to register a patent, he or she submits an invention declaration (ID) to the University of Montpellier's Department of Innovation and Partnerships (DIPA). Our direct contact for the transformation of the invention declaration into a patent is Satt AxLR (société d'accélération et de transfert de technologie) AxLR, which decides whether or not to transform the idea into a patent. It can also be done through other technology transfer organizations such as CNRS Innovation, Inserm Tranfert or Inrae Transfert, or any other technology transfer structure. In all cases, the aim is to bring a patent to commercial exploitation, either through the creation of a company, or through technology transfer. Or both. 

How much does a patent earn on average?

It all depends on the community concerned. For example, in chemistry, all you need is a molecule, a formula, a formulation, and it's patented. Let's say that this patent is associated with the manufacture of a drug, for example against diabetes, the operating license can bring in a lot of money, sometimes millions of euros. But out of a hundred patents filed, only two or three will make money. In the field of technology or micro-technology, a patent license can bring in only a few thousand euros. On the other hand, there will be more of them. What's important is the patent-license combination. Operating licenses determine the amount of income that will be generated for the benefit of the university, research organization, laboratory and, of course, the researcher.

Against this backdrop, what is the University of Montpellier's innovation strategy?

This ranking shows that there's a momentum underway that we need to push forward and accelerate. To this end, the University has put in place a number of tools, notably to train and acculturate all university staff through capacity building. It also involves welcoming companies into our laboratories through the "Companies on Campus" program. This is something that countries such as Japan, the USA, Germany and Switzerland have been doing for years... As there is little industry in the Montpellier area, the aim is to attract industrial talent to set up in a laboratory, with extremely attractive financial and intellectual conditions. It's a virtuous circle. This improves our competitiveness, while at the same time generating job opportunities for our students (see also: "Innovation can't exist without innovation"). Innovation cannot exist without trust ").

Since 2021, the UM has been selected to become a University Innovation Cluster (PUI). How does this PUI contribute to this dynamic?

The specificity of Montpellier is linked to the presence of many research organizations on the campus. Our governance, and therefore our collective modus operandi, was already active through Muse, and all we had to do was apply it to the innovation part. All the actions I mentioned earlier are PUI actions. The three pillars of the Muse i-site - care, nourishment and protection - are now at the heart of Montpellier Métropole's flagship project, Medvallée. We have just been awarded BPI France's first Frenchtech grant for a PUI project, the company Terratis to combat the tiger mosquito, because everyone has joined forces to ensure that an idea from a laboratory leads to the creation of a company that already has colossal markets. The PUI is there to implement and coordinate, but above all it's a collective. That's why I'm not yet satisfied with this classification, which I feel is incomplete. We need to push on, because Montpellier has tremendous potential. The university innovation cluster will encourage us to do just that.

Universities are training establishments: are young people the driving force behind innovation?

I've noticed that students are increasingly interested in entrepreneurship, and want to find meaning in what they do. On the academic side, however, there are still obstacles in the way of consideration for commercialization and applied research activities. The average age of patent applicants is around 40-45, or even 50. Why is this? Because they first have to make a career in the academic world, and publish in order to be recognized for their scientific output. But things are changing, the curves are bending and show that mentalities are changing. In Montpellier, we also have an innovation booster (BIM), financed by the PUI, which enables us to support student projects, as well as those of researchers and employees... By bringing together young people, the academic world and the socio-economic world, we will be able to increase the number of patents we issue and the number of start-ups we create. At the same time, we will help students to give meaning to their studies.

INPI: "A stronger position for public research

In November 2021, the University of Montpellier was selected as one of five pilot sites in France to develop a university innovation cluster (PUI) on its territory. This government strategy aims to promote the economic and social spin-offs of research by fostering the development of innovative ecosystems. INPI believes that this ranking helps to better identify organizations, both private and public, that invest in innovation. And notes " the strengthened position of public research ". It should be noted, however, that this 2022 edition is strongly marked by the Covid-19 crisis, since it takes into account patent applications made between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. During this period, the University of Montpellier filed 21 patents.