Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

The Bloody Patent Battle Over a Healing Machine

A patent for a simple medical device has made its inventors, its marketers, and a university rich—which is why everyone wants a piece of it:

"For Wake Forest University, which licensed the VAC patents to KCI, the device has meant about $500 million in royalties. Based almost entirely on the VAC deal, the university was ranked fifth by the Association of University Technology Managers in its most recent survey of licensing income, trailing only Columbia, New York University, Northwestern, and the University of California system. In recent years the KCI payments have propped up the bottom line of the university's medical center, and the VAC money has paid for research, recruiting, and construction that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.

"As you might imagine, all that success gave KCI and Wake Forest a powerful incentive to build a fence, to protect the patents at all cost. And it gave everybody else an equally powerful incentive to find a way through the fence.

"This is the story of what happens when there are billions of dollars wrapped up in a prosaic piece of technology that at its core is closer to your kid's science-fair entry than the Human Genome Project, one that despite all the commercial success and some 4 million or so patients still has its share of doubters in the medical community. It's a story about luck and timing and the squeezing of the health care dollar. It is about betrayal and wrangling over patents. And mostly it is about invention, the tenuous and uncertain act of breathing life into an idea that may or may not have been yours all along."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 30, 2012
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3893 words)