When Hellman and his group unveiled their inventions in 1976, they
assumed global use within five years. Stanford went ahead and patented
them. Meanwhile, after attending a seminar Hellman gave, he says,
faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology followed Stanfords
work, formed a company and licensed their technology back from MIT.
company licensed the Hellman groups technology from Stanford. The two
firms waged a paralyzing patent war that lasted nearly two decades.
Waymouth and Martin Hellman
If the companies hadnt battled each other and, rather, had agreed to
license and make it broadly available, both Stanford and MIT would
probably have gotten lots and lots of revenues, says Katharine Ku,
director of Stanfords Office of Technology Licensing. They totally
ruined both patents.
Part of the problem was everyones miscalculation on just how long it
would take for the field to be ready for them. They were off by a
industries had to be created around the technology before big money
could start rolling in. It takes years to build infrastructure for a
whole new technology, says Hellman. By the time
the field was ready 17 years later his patents had nearly
Hellman is philosophical about the fortune that might have been. It
didnt turn to gold, he says. It was a lost opportunity. Fortunately,
only commercially. He and his colleagues have been showered with
professional awards for their contributions. And they have the
satisfaction of seeing technology they developed widely used.