Richard A. Jefferson, an American-born pioneer in plant genetic engineering, is using $3 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to make it easier to search patents globally and share information between researchers. His Initiative for Open Innovation, which aims to help reduce hunger and disease, was launched July 14 at the United Nations’ Conference on Intellectual Property and Public Policy in Geneva.
Jefferson (pictured on Informilo’s home page) has long crusaded for more openness in the global patent system. Health innovations, including new drugs and crop improvements that eradicate certain medical conditions, require precise information about intellectual property rights. But navigating the global patent system is too complex and too expensive for researchers in the public sector charged with product development for the world’s poor. Few public sector organizations or small companies have in-house patent counsel are willing or able to invest in the kind of due diligence undertaken by larger companies. This either stops research or leads to roadblocks, preventing or delaying needed health products from reaching those who would benefit most.
“We need to get rid of a huge amount of uncertainty so that science can deliver something of social importance,” says Jefferson. The Initiative for Open Innovation or IOI was established by a partnership between Cambia, a nonprofit institute in Canberra, Australia founded by Jefferson and the Queensland University of Technology, where he teaches.
Jefferson, the man credited with inventing one of the main tools used in plant genetic engineering, started his campaign in 1987 by doing what the big companies that dominate agricultural biotech rarely do: He shared his discovery of beta-glucuronidase gene (GUS), an indicator that tells where a gene is, how much it expresses, and when it acts.
GUS is widely credited for enabling many breakthroughs in plant biotech, including the development of one of Monsanto’s first and most profitable agricultural products, Roundup Ready soybeans. Mr. Jefferson first provided GUS and all the know-how to use it for free to hundreds of labs around the world. When he secured his patents, he charged only what people could afford: Monsanto, he says, paid a substantial amount; academics and companies in the developing world, including those who wanted to use his work for commercial purposes, received it free of charge.
Mr. Jefferson invested the money earned from GUS in Australia’s CAMBIA, a nonprofit institute which launched online in 2000. CAMBIA developed “the Patent Lens”, a web based freely accessible and full text searchable tool for navigating the global patent system. Patent Lens now hosts nearly nine million full-text searchable patent documents in all classifications and many jurisdictions and languages. The Patent Lens, which is used by major public agencies such as the World Health Organizaiton, claims to be the only public facility to explore DNA and protein sequences disclosed in patents and applications.
Now, Jefferson is planning to take his crusade to free the basic tools of biotech to the next level, with new web applications for the innovation community to build public maps of intellectual property in any field. Global health is the first target. Together with partners, IOI plans to create an open Web 2.0 platform to map worldwide patent landscapes around such challenges such as malaria, tuberculosis and other neglected diseases.
Making it easier to do a full text search is not enough, says Jefferson. The creation of online , open access collaborative tools will help those in the public good sector, particularly in developing countries, make decisions concerning gene and protein patents, with a goal of making it simpler, faster and cheaper for scientific research to have an impact in the world. The same approach and platform can be used in any innovative field, including agriculture, says Jefferson.