Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

This week is the Association of University Technology Manager’s (AUTM) annual meeting, which this year will be in San Francisco, California. With that in mind we will be focusing on University technology this week leading into the AUTM meeting, which will be held in San Francisco, California, beginning on Wednesday, February 19, 2014 and running through Saturday, February 22, 2014.

February is also Black History Month, and so far we have taken a look at two exceptional African American innovators — Granville Woods and George Washington Carver.  Today we combine our University innovation focus with our celebration of Black History Month and take a look at inventions from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).


HBCU Research and Innovation

The first institution of higher education for black students in America was founded in 1837 and located in Cheyney, PA. In the early 1900s, these institutions began to offer postsecondary degree coursework, and by 1953, more than 75,000 students were enrolled in black public and private postsecondary institutions. The official designation for “historically black colleges and universities” was developed as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and was designed to enhance funding for these institutions.

Currently, there are 105 degree-granting institutions of higher education within the United States that have received the distinction of being named a historically black college or university (HBCU). These academic institutions, mostly four-year schools, are approximately 50 percent private institutions and the other half public. These schools only make up about 3 percent of the 4,879 total degree-granting institutions in America, but produce between one-quarter and one-third of the country’s black doctoral candidates every year.

The first patent received by an HBCU was on April 11, 1978, assigned to Shaw University of Raleigh, NC. Between 1969 and 2012, HBCUs received 100 utility patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in various fields, including energy, advanced manufacturing technology, nanotechnology and breast cancer treatment. Although this is a very small portion of patents issued by the USPTO during that period, the rate at which HBCUs have received patents has increased exponentially in recent years. In 2010, HBCUs received 10 patents; in 2011, 17 patents; and in 2012, 24 patents.

HBCUs are poised to take an even bigger role in academic research in the coming years. Since 2002, 58 patent applications have been filed by Florida A&M University faculty alone. The National Science Foundation reported that HBCUs received $547 million in research and development expenditures in 2011, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. See page 21 of Repositioning HBCU’s for the Future. In recent years, HBCUs have begun licensing some inventions to start-up businesses under provisions of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act.

We’ve gone through recent USPTO issued patents and patent applications filed by historically black colleges and universities to get an idea of current research at these institutions. We became intrigued by a group of innovations describing alternative fuel technologies, HIV treatments, treatments for prostate cancer and even hypoallergenic peanuts. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of patent and research activities at historically black colleges and universities, but rather offered as a snapshot into University research at these institutions. Much more can be expected moving forward thanks to the Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program and HBCU Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering (HBCU-RISE), which are providing increased funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).



Clean Green Fuel Technology
U.S. Patent Application No. 20120318660

The world’s supply of fossil fuels has been dwindling for decades now. This has spurred the development of alternative fuels around the world, such as hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas is a non-toxic alternative fuel that has a higher fuel efficiency than gasoline that can be produced through chemical means, biological means and through the electrolysis of water. However, none of these means can produce hydrogen spontaneously, continuously and in a cost-effective manner.

This patent application, filed by Jackson State University in December 2011 with the USPTO, protects a cost-effective method of producing hydrogen gas through a light-based reactive process between aluminum, sodium hydroxide, acetic acid and another metal such as iron, copper or tin. By utilizing some of Earth’s most common metals, like iron and aluminum, this process is much cheaper than previous methods using gallium or metal alloys.

A review of the file history shows that the patent claims were rejected by the patent examiner in a non-final action on September 12, 2013. Attorneys for Jackson State filed a response on January 13, 2014, and the case remains pending. Rejections are a common part of the patent acquisition process, so it is too early to tell whether a patent will issue.


Artificial Intelligence Valet System and Methods
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130231824

Much of our daily lives are centered around our vehicle use. We use our automobiles to get to work, go to the store and run important errands. In recent years, smart car technologies have been developed to provide many innovative benefits to car drivers through software. For example, parking guidance systems can help drivers safely parallel park, while free-range grid navigation can help drivers find their destination easily.

This patent application, filed by Florida A&M University with the USPTO in March 2013, describes an artificial intelligence valet system that can use mobile technology, neural networks and fuzzy logic to direct a vehicle to its owner. The automated driving system would be able to detect when another vehicle or a pedestrian is in the way and take evasive action to avoid a collision. This system could be built into a vehicle or would be made available to the market through a “plug and play” style device.

A review of the file history shows that no substantive action has yet been taken by the USPTO on this application.


Silica Based Plant Growth Medium
U.S. Patent No. 8516741

Planet Earth provides the optimal conditions for growing various forms of plant life, including light, water, oxygen and appropriate climates. However, there has been a growing interest in sustaining plant life in environments without these basic elements of life, such as outer space. On the International Space Station, a team of three crew members will need about four tons of supplies over six months; the cost of launching these supplies to a team in orbit is about $80 million. If man is to ever expand into exploration of Mars or the further reaches of space, a way to grow plant life that will reduce the costs of supplies is necessary.

The USPTO issued a patent to Fayetteville State University in August 2013 for a system of growing plants from a gel precursor that forms a viscous gel when water is added. The viscous gel is capable of carrying water and nutrients to seedlings that are planted within the gel. The system is especially useful for low-gravity or zero-gravity environments, such as are experienced in space.


Process for Preparing Hypoallergenic and Non-Allergenic Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) Utilizing an Endopeptidase
U.S. Patent No. 8211485

Peanuts are a nutritionally dense food, but certain naturally occurring chemicals can set off intense allergic reactions in a fair number of people. Peanut allergies can cause skin redness, hives, itchy throat, digestive problems, runny nose and even life-threatening conditions like anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is most commonly caused by peanut allergies, requires immediate hospitalization and can constrict breathing airways, increased blood pressure or even shock.

This patent, issued by the USPTO to North Carolina A&T State University in July 2012, describes a cost-effective system capable of completely removing allergens from peanuts. Allergenic properties are removed by directly applying a hypoallergenically-effective solution to raw or blanched peanuts that includes at least one endopeptidase. This innovation can reduce allergenic activities in peanuts by 30 percent up to 100 percent.


Inhibitors of Protein Phosphatase-1 and Uses Thereof
U.S. Patent No. 8278326

HIV-1 is the most common strain of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS in human beings. Protein phosphatase-1 (PP-1) is a certain class of phosphatase that is heavily used for the viral transcription of HIV. PP-1 binds to the HIV-1 tat, a regulatory protein, causing the transcription of HIV-1 and the spread of the virus throughout the body.

The USPTO issued a patent to Howard University in October 2012 to protect a formula compound capable of inhibiting interactions between PP-1 and the HIV-1 tat to reduce the transcription and spread of the virus within the body. This compound can be administered orally, intravenously or through a nasal spray. The National Institutes of Health provided research grant funding for this project, giving the government certain rights in the invention.


Camalexin as a Treatment for Prostate Cancer
U.S. Patent Application 20130096166

Prostate cancer is the leading form of non-skin cancers in men. The mortality rate for this form of cancer has decreased in recent years, but it still leads to a fairly high rate of death in men diagnosed with this form of cancer. The five-year survival rate for men who have organ-confined prostate cancer is approaching 100 percent, However, when malignant tumors are able to spread to other organs, the fatality rates increase tremendously among men suffering from prostate cancer.

This patent application has been filed by Clark Atlanta University with the USPTO in October 2012 to protect a method of treating prostate cancer using a compound known as camalexin. Camalexin is a phytoalexin, or antimicrobial substances, that naturally occurs as a reaction to environmental stress in certain plant species. A diet rich in phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. Applying the phytochemical camalexin to prostate cancer tissue has shown the ability to reduce the proliferation of those malignant cells.

A review of the file history shows that no substantive action has yet been taken by the USPTO on this application.


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of

Join the Discussion

No comments yet.