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IP Enforcement

Northwestern is committed to bringing its innovations for public benefit. To move those innovations to society, INVO licenses Northwestern's innovations to commercial organizations to develop and disseminate the technologies to society. These inventions result from years of work and knowledge creation by the researchers building their careers and millions of dollars invested by Northwestern supporting that research. Companies that use Northwestern's technologies without a license devalue the faculty member's contributions and the University.

Cobot Case

February 4, 2021

Northwestern Innovation

On February 2 and 4, 2021, Northwestern University filed patent infringement complaints against several robotics manufacturers for practicing patented technology owned by Northwestern without licensing the right to do so.

The Northwestern technology reflects fundamental inventions developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s of collaborative robots that improve the quality, safety and efficiency of industrial manufacturing.  These advancements have revolutionized modern manufacturing by enabling industrial robots to exist in the same space as plant operators and even collaborate with humans.  The impact of the technology on manufacturing industries can be readily observed in various sectors involving the assembly of heavy and large parts such as automotive and aerospace. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What patented Northwestern technology is involved in the cases?

The specific patents involved in the cases cover robotic intelligent assist systems — “cobots” — that advance how people and robots collaboratively work to manufacture an array of commercial products.

Why does Northwestern apply for and hold patents?

The creation and dissemination of new ideas for the public’s benefit is integral to a research university’s academic mission.  Northwestern inventors must disclose inventions to Northwestern's Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO).  Part of INVO’s responsibility is the management of the University's intellectual property assets (e.g., patents) to ensure the effective development of impactful technologies through technology licensing, corporate partnerships, entrepreneurial support, and startup creation. 

Northwestern’s Patent and Invention Policy, available at https://www.invo.northwestern.edu/invention-disclosure/policies-forms/university_patent_and_invention_policy_090120.pdf, is very similar to its peer US research institutions.  The policy serves to protect the rights and interests of Northwestern's faculty, researchers, and students.  Effective intellectual property protection is critical for successfully transferring research to society by ensuring efficient collaborations with commercial partners.

If Northwestern intends groundbreaking technologies to positively impact the world, why file suit against companies using the technology?

Northwestern is committed to the timely, effective, and equitable dissemination of innovative ideas and technologies for society's benefit.  That knowledge transfer is integral to the academic mission.  The University’s commitment to advancing life-changing science and technology is well recognized: Northwestern is regularly ranked as one of the “Most Innovative Universities” for its exceptional influence on global R&D.  Northwestern owes its success in technology development to the preeminent research faculty whose ingenuity continually pushes the boundaries of possibility in science and technology, and to the University’s strong relationships with industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors.

The unlicensed use of patented technology — the use of patented technology without appropriate licenses and recognition for those involved in its creation — creates an uneven playing field.  Unlicensed use further deprives researchers of the industry recognition they deserve, which devalues researchers' contributions and efforts who have applied their considerable talent and effort to address critical technological challenges and unmet needs.  Enforcement of patents such as those owned by Northwestern encourages fair competition, protects the inventors' rights, and is fundamental to the integrity of the US patent system and international commerce. 

How would Northwestern distribute proceeds from the successful enforcement of its patent rights?

Any recovery of revenue resulting from patent enforcement related to the cobots would be distributed according to Northwestern’s Patent and Invention Policy.  A portion of any net recovery would be distributed among the inventors.  The remaining amount would be distributed to the university (central administration, school and/or department per the policy) in order to reinvest the proceeds to further its mission of excellence in research and education.