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Patents 4 Sale

When you introduce yourself in the fictional Iraqi city of Waddihya, take off your sunglasses and place your hand over your heart. That’s the advice of USC professor W. Lewis Johnson, who has never physically been to Iraq or “Waddihya,” but navigates its dusty streets as if he’d lived there his entire life.

After all, he did create Waddihya and the program it exists in: Tactical Iraqi, a software tool that looks suspiciously like a shoot-’em-up game but in fact teaches U.S. soldiers the language and social customs of Iraqis. An assistant is busy packing up dozens of laptops running the program; the next day, Johnson and crew are flying to demonstrate the program to the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, where, coincidentally, Johnson maintains a coffee farm.

“The trust meter is down in the red zone,” Johnson explains, indicating the pixilated bar on the screen of the laptop that he sits before in his modest West L.A. office. He has maneuvered his G.I. avatar up to a virtual Arab on the virtual sidewalk. “So let me say hello in a respectful way: Salaam Alaikum,” he says into his headset microphone.

Wa Alaikum Salaam,” the Arab replies.

“See?” says Johnson. “His trust meter went up.”

From a university standpoint, Johnson and other faculty at USC’s Information Sciences Institute have high trust meters of their own. Thanks to ISI's location in Marina del Rey, far from USC’s lecture halls, the creators of Tactical Iraqi enjoy a high level of autonomy. Indeed, says ISI spokesman Eric Mankin, it was founded by a RAND Corporation researcher who wanted to establish ISI at a local university so as to maintain a link with RAND. “UCLA said it would take six months to a year,” boasts Mankin. “USC made the deal in a week.”

USC’s limberness may be its best advantage in competing with the research giant across town. Once, the steady stream of government and aerospace grants made it unnecessary for the area’s universities to look for money. But that has changed in the past few decades, with the corporatization of research and the Bay-Dohl Act of 1980, which allows universities and faculties to patent their research. Since then, the UC system has led the nation’s universities in patents 12 years running. Even considered as an individual campus, UCLA is far ahead of USC in producing patents. But there’s one area where UCLA, and indeed all the other region’s research institutions (even Cal Tech) have historically faltered: commercializing their research.

USC alum and prominent venture capitalist Mark Stevens wants to change that. To boost his alma mater, Stevens gave $22 million in 2004 to establish the Mark and Mary Stevens Institute for Technology Commercialization. Earlier this year, SITeC brought in the former director of MIT’s tech commercialization program.

“There’s lot of great research going on at USC, but comparing it to Berkeley or Stanford or other top research universities, it has not had their successful track record,” says Stevens, who is convinced that tech commercialization is an area where USC can get the better hand. Rather than simply allowing faculty to license their work to the R&D departments of existing companies, SITeC is encouraging more faculty to commercialize their own work. Stevens says once they learn the basics of intellectual property law and how to seek venture capital, engineering students will get a boost from the school’s strong ties to the business community.

“We want to tell faculty it’s okay to take a leave and go start a company. A strong research institution can develop itself further in the marketplace,” says Stevens. After all, what’s wrong with a little competition?