Eying Profits, Singularity University Tightens Grip on Student Startups

Ann McClure's picture
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

As it draws up plans to become a for-profit corporation, Singularity University has significantly tightened the terms under which its students may use the intellectual property they develop in their courses.

When it was created four years ago with support from neighboring Google and Google’s co-founder Larry Page, the prestigious but non-accredited institution was all about teaching “exponentially advancing technologies” as a supplement to a traditional education. Now Singularity U. apparently believes it can best promote those technologies and address humanity’s biggest problems by better controlling and assisting student startups, reading between the lines of new contracts students are being asked to sign.

Students in Singularity University’s elite summer Graduate Studies Program, a veritable startup launching pad based out of the NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley, were earlier this summer presented with agreements giving the university wide latitude to negotiate royalties and equity and to deny the students use of the ideas and software they develop in the program. In exchange for letting students develop their university projects into startups, Singularity University may now demand an ownership stake of any size or even deny approval entirely if the student does not become an “alumni in good standing” or if the startup would not sufficiently advance the university’s mission. Students must also meet a series of application deadlines if they wish to license back their ideas.

In contrast, last summer’s agreements specified that the university grants royalty-free licenses to students and seeks only a 2 percent ownership stake in their startups as matters of policy. It specified no deadlines, restrictions on startup concept or requirements about maintaining “good standing.” Restrictions on intellectual property now take up four paragraphs in the agreement, as compared to one paragraph in summer 2011, a review of the documents shows.

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