What's the Cost of Protectionism in Technology?

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Partner & Chief Creative Officer
Apr 10, 2015

If you had something in your hands that could make the world a better place -- research, a new technology, even just an idea -- would you prioritize finding a way to monetize this “thing” over sharing it with the world and getting it into practice as quickly as possible?

The debate over protecting and patenting intellectual property as it relates to technology is complicated and presents two highly opposing viewpoints.

In one corner, patenting supporters, such as many top universities, argue it promotes innovation, growth and investment.

On the other side of the aisle are people like Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer and senior vice president for administration and finance at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, which seeks to improve the environment and people’s lives around the globe through plant science.

Fiorello is also the president of the Bio Research & Development Growth Park (BRDG Park) on the Danforth Center campus, which serves as an incubator for emerging biotech startup companies and also seeks to attract established companies from around the world to St. Louis.

In this digital age, Fiorello contends, playing close to the vest with potentially world-changing information doesn't make sense. It’s time, he says, for academic and research institutions to change their old way of thinking and find ways to build partnerships with startups and other companies to bring their innovative knowledge into real-world applications.

“If you ask many tech managers at universities what their job is they’ll say it’s to protect the university’s intellectual property. I say, flip that around. It’s not your job at all,” Fiorello said. “Here, our job is to get that intellectual property out there to get it to that next partner in the chain and to think through those next five partners. Your job is to make sure the human condition is improved. Get rid of the word ‘protect’ from that sentence. The intellectual property we create here, we fail if we don’t get it out there by any means.

“Not only don’t lock the gates to the kingdom,” he added, “but unlock them and throw the doors wide open.”

Fiorello cites as an example one of the BRDG Park’s own tenants, Benson Hill Biosystems. Benson Hill focuses on increasing crop yields on existing acreage and with limited resources -- one of the biggest challenges in sustainable agriculture -- by improving the photosynthetic efficiency in plants.

The BRDG Park views Benson Hill first and foremost as a partner, rather than an opportunity for monetary gain.

“The old way of thinking would be to say to a startup company, there are 15 different hurdles and you have to promise the sun and the moon. A lot of startups simply don’t have the time or the resources to make those kind of promises,” Fiorello said.

Instead, the BRDG Park often takes joint ownership in their partners’ ventures, so it’s rewarded when they’re successful.

“It’s much more looking at them as a partner in transitioning this technology from interesting work in a lab to something we hope will soon be in farmers’ fields, versus an idea that I’m going to monetize this technology. I’m going to have a stream of royalties up front and extract as much money as I can,” Fiorello said.

In December, the MIT Technology Review wrote about a brewing legal fight to obtain patents for CRISPR, a gene-editing system being called “the biggest biotech discovery of the century.”

“The CRISPR system, dubbed a ‘search and replace function’ for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters,” wrote the Technology Review’s Antonio Regalado. “During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.”

Refining the CRISPR technique could lead to treatments or cures for rare metabolic problems and genetic diseases such as hemophilia and the neurodegenerative disease Huntington’s, Regalado wrote.

But commercial control over the CRISPR genome editing technology could be worth billions of dollars, which has led several parties to join in the battle to claim ownership.

Patent litigation may delay the technology being turned into products.

Fiorello believes the change in thinking about intellectual property may be slow to come, but it will eventually happen.

“And I think that will unlock new advances that will improve the human condition,” he said. “It will unlock it much more rapidly when folks start thinking it’s OK to open the doors and let things out. That it’s not only OK, it’s vital.”



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