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Forget the next iPod, think Viagra

A monument to Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel stands in New York City.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Well, Apple's Steve Jobs has finally done it: iPods won the Nobel Prize today.

Actually, that's not entirely true. The European winners of the physics Nobel got it for discovering something called giant magnetoresistance. That's a fancy way of describing how digital devices like those iPods store ever-more data on ever-smaller hard disks.

Discoveries like that one can lead to some extraordinarily lucrative consumer products -- I think as of today, Apple's sold something like a bajillion iPods. But do the researchers who make the actual discoveries get part of the profit? Sounds like a question for Steve Tripoli from the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk.


STEVE TRIPOLI: First of all, don't worry about today's two winners. German scientist Peter Gruenberg patented his discovery early. We couldn't verify if his partner had, but the two did split a million-and-a-half dollars for today's Nobel.

Over here, we called Jack Turner at MIT's technology licensing office. He says the school divvies up royalties from successful research evenly -- inventors, their departments and the university's general fund get a cut.

JACK TURNER: It's absolutely formulaic here at MIT. And most of the other universities that I'm familiar with have a similar royalty-sharing scheme.

How about government? Does it take a slice of royalties from research it funds?

TURNER: The revenue doesn't flow to the government, but the government has a royalty-free license to use any invention that arises from federally-funded research.

Phillip Schewe at the American Institute of Physics says researchers have become much smarter about grabbing a share of the fruits of their labor.

PHILLIP SCHEWE: When I was in graduate school more than 25 years ago, patents weren't that big a deal. But nowadays, I think it's much different -- scientists now are very cognizant of the power of patents.

Schewe says he's seen graduate students, and even undergrads, heading for the patent office. MIT's Jack Turner says discoveries like the one honored today tend not to be the biggest money-makers.

TURNER: They tend to be drugs -- the real blockbusters have tended to be pharmaceuticals.

I asked how high the take can go...

TURNER: Well, certainly millions, but probably not billions. But many millions.

So forget about the next iPod. Get to work on the next cancer-killer. Or the next Viagra. I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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