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U of Toronto husband-and-wife researchers at forefront of open science industry partnering

Husband-and-wife University of Toronto researchers Elizabeth and Aled Edwards are leading a revolution in industry partnering with an open science model that allows companies to share in innovations without encountering any patents or other barriers to new advances.

“Society’s big problems — such as how AI can help drug discovery, how we’re going to create bio-manufacturing capabilities that can provide medicine to the world affordably, how we’re going to tackle climate change and how we prevent the next pandemic — can’t be solved by any single actor,” says Aled Edwards, a professor in the departments of medical biophysics and molecular genetics who leads the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), which he launched in 2003. “They require spaces to focus purely on innovation — the science, engineering and other research — in which ideas are freely shared and worries about patenting are set aside. We believe that universities in general, and U of T specifically, are ideally positioned to host these spaces.”

While some critics fear a sharing-first approach will dampen incentives and scare off industry, SGC’s open science policy, which expressly forbids patenting on its research, has so far had the opposite effect. Over the past 15 years, the open science model has only served to bring more industry partners to the table.

“To me, in my work, open science is not an end — it’s a business tactic to reach an end, which is to help us understand more about the human genome and human biology, and to allow this knowledge to be translated as rapidly as possible to drive new treatments.”

Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile, traces her early forays into open science to when she worked with industry partners to develop a microbial culture, KB-1, that can dechlorinate pollutants in groundwater. That invention led to the creation of the spinoff company SiREM. Since KB-1 was a collaborative discovery, patenting it became more of a headache than it was worth.

“When we started working together, we weren’t thinking about IP — it wasn’t even on the radar,” says Elizabeth, professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry.

“So, we just negotiated a royalty and have kept working together ever since, with students going back and forth.”

KB-1 has since been deployed at some 900 sites around the world by organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to NASA, and SiREM continues to collaborate with Elizabeth and her students to develop cultures that can degrade other contaminants.

She is also the founding director of BioZone, a research center focused on developing biotechnologies that address sustainability challenges. Nearly all of its past research output has been disseminated freely, and all new industry partnerships are being pursued using the no-patent, open science approach. Industry partners include mining giant Vale and commodity trader Glencore.

Elizabeth says the long list of corporate partners that have collaborated on open science ventures proves that IP isn’t the main motivating factor for companies looking to work with universities.

“The people who work in companies read the same literature as professors do, and they’re just as smart and capable — but they have a different mandate,” she says. “If something interesting happens in their labs but it’s a little bit sideways, they’re not allowed to pursue it because they have a core business to stick to. So, these companies love [open science partnerships] because it helps them find out more about the things they wish they could do, but don’t have time for.”

Aled echoed his wife’s assessment. “Industry loves the clarity of the policy; they know exactly what they’re going into the collaboration for – to talk science, to engage with brilliant young people, to do science they would not have the time to do internally, and to get excited about the latest scientific developments,” he says.

“Elizabeth and I see the university’s role in the innovation economy as being a vehicle for industry to ask far-out questions, while allowing them a way to engage and attract students to their problems – and students really enjoy tackling real-world problems.”

He adds that U of T’s support of these open science initiatives has placed the university in a leadership position in industry engagement worldwide. “In supporting us to explore this radical way to innovate, U of T has painted a picture of how the Canadian university of the future can work with the private sector and others to tackle big problems and more effectively move ideas from the lab to the market. It’s an innovation on innovation, and we hope U of T continues to lead the way.”

Source: U of T News

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week