Anne Willis, a cancer survivor who is now the director of cancer surrvivorship at George Washington University’s Cancer Institute, helps patients manage cancer treatment using donated software. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Last month, global engineering firm Siemens made one of its largest donations, valued at $750 million, to the University of Maryland.

It wasn’t a financial contribution. Instead, it was a license for its engineering software. Called Product Lifecycle Management, the software simulates the design and manufacturing processes for products such as cars and airplanes. PLM uses real data about the life span of certain parts to predict, for instance, how long a car might last.

In-kind software donations aren’t new. Microsoft, Apple and Google, among others, have been providing free software or hardware to schools, nonprofit groups and others for more than a decade. Tech companies often use such handouts not only to further a good cause, but also to gain exposure for their products and test new markets.

IT philanthropy can take other forms, as well. Siemens, whose U.S. subsidiary in the District of Columbia took in $22 billion in fiscal 2012, has a separate philanthropic arm donating about $7 million annually to educational initiatives in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

The company distributes its PLM licenses through a program called GoPLM, which makes hundreds of such donations to academic institutions each year. But it’s not purely philanthropic. It’s also intended to develop a cadre of engineers familiar with Siemens products, said Bill Boswell, director of partner strategy. “It’s a long-term investment in that pipeline of people,” he said.

As products become more sophisticated, engineering students need training in technology to help them manage the design of complex products, Boswell said. “Cars have hundreds of computers in them, and the cellphone has more processing power and memory than an entire Apollo moon mission,” he said.

Although the software is free, universities receiving PLM grants typically pay Siemens an annual fee of a few thousand dollars for access to tech support and software maintenance.

Hardly alone

Siemens is hardly the only enterprise that has built a structure behind its donations. A new collaboration between nonprofit, academic and for-profit ventures called Journey Forward is offering free software to breast cancer survivors and oncologists, helping them to manage care after a patient is discharged from active treatment — chemotherapy or surgery, for instance — and to raise awareness of the emerging field of survivorship care.

Journey Forward released the latest version of the software this year. The group consists of the advocacy nonprofit groups the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS), the Oncology Nursing Society, UCLA’s Cancer Survivorship Center, health benefits company WellPoint and biotechnology corporation Genentech.

The Survivorship Care Builder, a program for oncologists, help doctors create a post-treatment care plan for patients including follow-up appointments and exams. Journey Forward is piloting a software that pulls data from patients’ health records into the post-care plan, and is developing its iPhone app MyCare Plan, which helps cancer patients manage care after formal treatment ends.

Journey Forward’s Survivorship Care Builder has been downloaded about 30,000 times and the MyCare Plan a few thousand times, according to the organization.

The NCCS has spent the past few decades advocating better care for survivors once they leave the hospital, when they may experience residual side effects from treatment, executive director Nina Wendling said. The software prompts both patients and oncologists to think more about post-treatment care, she said.

Anne Willis, director of cancer survivorship at George Washington University’s Cancer Institute and herself a cancer survivor, recommends Survivorship Care Builder to oncologists at the institute. Willis, former director for cancer survivorship at the NCCS, said it would be possible to create similar software internally but that funding for post-treatment care is scarce. “It becomes a more complicated process than an Excel [spread]sheet,” she said. Between IT requirements and the staff’s time, developing such a tool — or even paying for it — can be cost-prohibitive for hospitals, she said.

“In our experience working with health-care professionals across the country, time and cost are big barriers to improving survivorship care, so free software that can help improve efficiency can reduce those challenges,” Willis said.

Although it’s free, Journey Forward has encountered resistance from health-care providers and the businesses operating electronic health records systems who say that the basic treatment summaries often included in health records are sufficient, Wendling said.

This version has been updated to reflect that the Survivorship Care Builder is intended to help cancer patients manage care after active treatment, such as chemotherapy or surgery.