I spoke with a professor and learned that The University of Tennessee chemistry department turns a net profit. It receives zero tuition money. It has patents and research grants. How does it achieve this? Is this a common thing? How to find/execute profitable patent producing research? And How to win grants?
There are a large number of soft-money research centers that are essentially stand-alone - they have to bring in enough research money to cover their costs, and don't receive tuition support, TA lines, etc. I suspect the most common place to find them is in the biomedical field. I worked for one when I was a postdoc.
- How does it achieve this? There are a number of ways to do this. A generous initial endowment can help. Patents, and the licensing revenue that comes from them are, for some fields, a major source of income. And then there are grants. Lots and lots of grants.
- Do they have strategies that get them here? Yes. One does not get there by accident.
- Is this model reproducible? Given there is more than one such organization, the answer is clearly yes.
Whether it's desirable or sustainable is, on the other hand, another question. In my experience, there is an immense amount of pressure on the senior leaders of such organizations, because if grant funding doesn't come through, there's no safety net, and you're immediately talking about firing people. And because the operating expenses for any academic unit are quite high, they often depend on a small number of large grants to support them (for example, where I was a postdoc, I don't think it was possible to write enough NIH R01-scale grants to cover things).
That's a very high risk position. If a program gets cut, funding falls through, etc. there's suddenly a massive hole in the budget.