Patenting is surely a big game in Biotech and science generally, as some open-source initiatives have started to question whether such a choice is sustainable and whether they are other productive models for society?
As I was looking for a contact at Cambia.org, I came across Osmat Jefferson LinkedIn profile. At that time we needed to find an open-source technology to develop our product pipeline and Cambia has provided several of these technologies under BiOS (biological innovation based on open society) licenses. Open-source and DIY Biology is part of the DNA of Tiamat Sciences, the project is born in the community lab ReaGent and we strongly believe that science should be accessible to everyone. Osmat has been a principal scientist at Cambia.org for 15 years and although no longer working in a lab, she has considerable experience in open-source biotechnology, and she agreed to be interviewed on the matter of open-source in Biotech.
France-Emmanuelle Adil - Tiamat CEO
Can you introduce yourself?
I am the director of application development at Lens.org. Len.org is a public benefit company that is owned by Cambia, a social enterprise, and Queensland University of technology. The Lens team is building an open platform for innovation cartography. By serving nearly all the global patents as annotated public goods integrated with scholarly and technical information, we strive to expand the demographics of problem solving so that collectively, we can make the innovation system more fair, equitable, transparent and inclusive. The purpose of my role is to lead a Lens team to design and implement applications that would make the scientific and patent knowledge behind the two data corpora and their linkages, and soon other innovation knowledge, open and public to inspire, inform productive partnerships, and help entrepreneurs, citizens and policymakers find their own solutions.
“I believe that science is a public good which means that scientific knowledge is not rivalrous or exclusive.”
What made you work on open-source projects?
For me, openness has been part of the scientific social norms I grew up with. I believe that science is a public good which means that scientific knowledge is not rivalrous or exclusive. In the not distant past, scientists were mainly recognised for their contribution to society. To gain societal trust, they share and open up their scientific methods/findings to objective testing and verification by others to ensure the collective knowledge is advanced, public interest is served, and society benefits from diverse contributions. From that perspective, I feel that right now the
a diverse ecology of innovators that can keep our society in a more balanced state.
I am committed to open-source and open-biology because of its potential to restore a balance and nudge a positive change in our society. I come from that principle of openness.
So, do you think that open-source is good for innovation?
It depends on how you define and use open-source. If openness is the ability to, not only access, but use and re-use in a receptive culture, then yes, I believe that open-source is the best way to induce a collaborative innovative culture that can be more efficient and fair.
You mentioned different meanings for openness, what do you mean? Are there other ways to understand open-source?
There are more than 50 meanings for the word “open” or “openness” and unfortunately there is no common understanding of the concept among the scientific community. Some people think of “open” as “open access” which is just the ability to access and read information, but doesn’t include the ability to share, use, and re-use with a common purpose to solve a collective problem. Open may also mean “open science”, a free exchange of scientific knowledge and at the same time, patenting research outputs, or charging for an added value to a product/service.
You can read more about such meanings here:
What do you think about patents?
A patent is a bargain between a government and an inventor. In exchange of getting a monopoly for a certain limited time, the inventor fully discloses their invention to enable those skilled in the art to reproduce it. So, the government uses the patent as an economic incentive to encourage investment, boost innovation, and serve the public interest. This is the basis of having patents in an economy, as I understand it.
But over time, that concept has changed mainly because of the discovery that patents or intellectual property rights could also be used as a business asset and companies can trade these assets. So, when some governments implemented policies to accelerate innovation, they relaxed some of the patenting requirements and used intellectual property rights in their international trading agreements as well, which as you know, lead to a huge increase in patenting activity across the globe. So, governments can use that tool to make patenting rules more elastic or restrictive based on their economy’s needs. In the life sciences and around the
Moreover, since the early 1990s, the culture of patent offices has begun to change. Patent offices have become user-based funded agencies, which means, unlike any government agency, their funding depends on the number of patents processed per year. So, naturally patent offices’ focus shifted from fully serving the public interest to serving both their clients, whose activities were critical to the office’s financial sustainability, and the public. Serving clients can be different from serving the public interest in terms of ramification to an equitable and transparent innovation system. I believe that the culture shift across various aspects of the innovation system has influenced our current innovative environment and exposed collective challenges for an inclusive and fair society.
Now, patents are more complex to interpret or understand. The complexity of the claim language can be mind boggling and hard to comprehend except by a few highly specialised patent agents and lawyers. It is difficult to navigate the full contextual information around an invention, understand who owns what rights, and until recently, the patent data was not even fully accessible. Full text searching in patents from many jurisdictions is still an issue, and disclosed patent sequences, for example, are not in machine searchable format across many patent offices. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0172219015000848).
“Now, the patenting game is mainly for those companies, organisations or universities that can afford to invest in their acquisition and enforcement.”
When Cambia IP resource and later Patent Lens, the precursor to Lens.org, started in early 2000, Cambia had to buy the patents as image/pdf files and render them text searchable to enable searching and analysis of IP rights in the Biotech field. Then, there was a lot of fighting about Intellectual property rights around genetic work, and Cambia, served the first free patent resource platform enabling people to navigate patenting activities to better understand claimed rights. In addition, Cambia published many landscapes on key biotechnologies including the Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer collective landscape at https://cambia.org/technology-landscapes/agrobacterium/. And today, despite Cambia’s and other efforts, still, we don’t have a complete picture about claimed IP rights because details on ownership, and licensing information, for example, are not publicly available. This information is not an open knowledge (www.nature.com/articles/nbt.3393).
I see patents as a useful teaching tool, if they are of high quality and used in the purpose they were created for. Granted a limited monopoly but enabling the skilled in the art to fully understand and reproduce the invention. Transparency matters. The public is entitled to view all contextual information around patents.
As discussed earlier, now, the patenting game is mainly for those companies, organisations or universities that can afford to invest in their acquisition and enforcement.
From my perspective, I would like to see a more diverse and richer ecology of inventors able to put the patents to work to make services and products useful to our society, environment, and economy.
Do you know any companies currently working with open-source technology in biotech?
There are several initiatives around the world nowadays. Cambia was kind of unique at the time when it launched the BiOS initiative in 2004.
There are other initiatives like open-society, open-corporates (https://opencorporates.com/), a public benefit company that is developing an open database for the world’s companies, open for all.
In terms of open biotech and Biopharma, here is a link to a few open source projects www.opensourcepharma.net/projects.html and there is a recent initiative by Jenny Molloy at University of Cambridge, who is trying to develop open-source biotech tools for Africa. Here is an interesting article on the six laws for an open-source drug discovery project by Matt Todd that you may find useful. It is open access and available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/cmdc.201900565
In terms of open and free data platforms, you may want to check Lens.org, espacenet, and others.
What is your advice for companies willing to work with open-source technology?
Through my national and international work, I came to experience that science or patents are only a part of the innovative process, and working with open-source technologies allows you to build partnerships based on confidence and trust in that technology. But for these to succeed, the innovation strategy needs to integrate and take into consideration every component, like the technology, the science, intellectual property rights, marketing, manufacturing standards etc..and how they intersect with each other… It’s like a puzzle, as described by Richard Jefferson (www.nature.com/articles/548S8a), all the pieces have to be assembled together in the right place to see the bigger picture in order to make a headway in solving a problem. The global challenges we face as a collective group are enormous for a single group to tackle them alone. We need increased openness, transparency, and a receptive culture to accelerate innovation.
Thank you Osmat for those inspiring answers and considerations, I am sure they will inspire the new generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and researchers! They already opened new doors for us!
What do you think about open-source in Biotech? Share a comment to start the discussion!