University Classroom Presentations As Prior Art Disclosures: Are Engineering Capstone Teams Unknowingly Giving Away The Fruits Of Their Labor?

December 23, 2016

Today’s universities and colleges offer a multitude of programs focused on innovation, product development, and entrepreneurship. Students and faculty members are encouraged to create products that can be commercialized. 2 Universities nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in order to foster economic growth and create jobs in their communities and regions. They see entrepreneurship as a new career path for students interested in starting their own companies rather than pursuing traditional employment opportunities. Universities may also view entrepreneurship and innovation as key components in attracting outside funding and support for research from industry collaborators and government sources. Colleges and universities now offer majors and minors in entrepreneurship, experiential learning opportunities, business plan competitions, incubators and accelerators, entrepreneurship-focused residence halls, and various other programs intended to train entrepreneurs and support startups.
Engineering schools and departments have taken a leading role in the entrepreneurship movement, and courses increasingly focus on innovation and commercialization of new products. Every accredited engineering program must require its undergraduate students to participate in a capstone course where the student identifies a problem, devises a solution to that problem, and builds an operational prototype that can be tested and verified. Students are encouraged or even expected to create novel inventions that may be entitled to patent protection. However, rather than training students to protect rights in intellectual property they have created, many universities appear to be blind or indifferent to the risks posed by the structure of their capstone courses. In order to receive a grade for the course and graduate with an engineering degree, students are instead required to continually share their inventive process and resulting innovations with their fellow students, with faculty mentors and other advisors, and ultimately with the public.