In all the session on intellectual property at Zurich’s Synthetic Biology 3.0 meeting didn’t quite have the inspirational flair of its science based predecessors, but one talk in particular stood out. Stephen Maurer, a lawyer and adjunct faculty member at Berkeley presented as a case study for the murky intellectual property issues raised by synthetic biology a pending $500 million proposal by the UC school to partner with BP (the B stands for Beyond, now, not British as was formerly the case). For background see here, here and here.
BP is looking to capitalise on synthetic biology for the creation of biofuels and is looking both at Berkeley, considered one of its major hubs at the moment, and the University of Illinois to start setting up shop in an academic setting. Maurer has an intimate vantage, and an interesting point of view.
The deal would place so-called ‘closed’ BP labs on the campus. These would be run by BP scientists. There would also be ‘open’ labs run by established biologists at Berkeley. The proposal also calls for a so-called ‘applications lab’ an odd gray area grouping, which as I understand it, is where translational research that may be of high interest to BP could flow more easily behind the walls of the ‘closed’ labs. For the sizable chunk of money, which comes both from BP and public sources, BP would be granted non-exclusive royalty-free license to patents on technologies in BP’s area of interest. Exclusive licensing could be negotiated, and Berkeley proposes a capped fee. Maurer took a moment to voice his worst nightmare, where the solution to the world’s energy crisis ends up generating a couple of hundred thousand dollars for Berkeley.
So, the proposal has had the Berkeley campus protesting, and for the most part said Maurer, protesting for the same reasons that people have opposed these kinds of deals in the past – limiting the freedom of academic pursuits, misdirecting research funds, etc. But Maurer said that there seemed to be new, more troubling aspects to this proposal which Berkeley has defended by calling, ‘a standard contract.’ Part of the problem for Maurer is that the new field, Synth biology seems poised to benefit most by openness of ideas and sharing of the ‘parts’ generated by scientists around the world. The development of biological parts presents a situation that if patenting becomes the norm would likely create a tipping market scenario leading Berkeley and BP into dangerous antitrust waters. Biotechnology has adopted whole heartedly the patenting schema, which Maurer says isn’t really as common in innovative fields like chemistry. He told me he thought Berkeley should demand more openness in the plan and asked all in attendance to check out the proposal and if they felt the same way to call their colleagues at Berkeley and make it known. I’ve linked a summary of the proposal here. I’ll try to update with a better link when Maurer gets back to me.
His dissidence was worth the price of attendance. The price of attendance was missing out on a public policy and ethics roundtable discussion going on down the hall. I made it in time for questions, and a second session of the same ilk is starting right now.