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Patents are a ‘no-no’ in Canadian couple’s open science consortia

A detailed article on an “open science” approach to industry partnerships appears in the January issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

It might be well past time to put away the myth that companies are loathe to work with “the competition,” or that for them it’s all about the IP. Aled Edwards, PhD, and Elizabeth Edwards, PhD, husband-and-wife professors at the University of Toronto (UT), have been establishing open science consortia since the turn of the 21st century, and have been so successful that they’ve each been made an Officer of the Order of Canada for their industry partnership work — Elizabeth in 2020 for her work in engineering (bioremediation), and Aled this year for his leadership of the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), which he founded in 2003. And in the wake of their success, others in Canada are following suit.

The open science approach to partnering “was an evolution of my own experience; I had been more traditional,” says Aled, a professor in the UT departments of medical biophysics and molecular genetics and the Temerty Nexus Chair of Health Innovation and Technology. “In the mid-1990s I was an assistant professor, and there were funding doldrums in Canada. The kind of science I wanted to do required a lot of money, and there was an appetite in the private sector. I started a bunch of companies, but having lived in companies a few years I became less dewey-eyed about the advantages of the private sector, [and I realized] for making medicines you’d have far more impact working in the public sphere.”

Elizabeth, he continues, “got there by necessity,” after having worked as an engineer in companies and then in an environmental consulting firm. “She got to understand what the real problems are,” he shares. “We recognized together that it would be great if we had a lab back in the university.”

As a consultant, he explains, Elizabeth had big client companies that needed to clean up waste sites. She worked with industry partners in developing a microbial culture, KB-1, which was designed to dechlorinate groundwater pollutants. The technology led to the creation of spinoff called SiREM.

“We had been working together transparently, so we worked together the way we had before — de facto very open,” says Aled. “Since [the space] was so new, publishing was the way to validate it, versus protecting it under a patent; you couldn’t define it well enough. We did not understand genome sequencing 20 years ago; by publishing, it got way more credibility and the technology advanced into practice. The company still reaps the benefits.” In fact, KB-1 has found its way to around 900 sites around the world, including those of Fortune 500 companies and NASA.

“Our colleagues in industry could see that credibility was way more important than [IP] protection,” adds Elizabeth. a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at UT.

Aled rejects the assertion that companies don’t want to work with their competitors. “What are you competing on?” he challenges. “You can [identify] many domains in science where it is far more important for companies to have the freedom to operate and get the answer known, rather than to own the answer. Oil companies have to deal with wastes — their core business is making hydrocarbons [and] they do not want to innovate waste management technologies. They want access to the technology, to work with it at their sites, to be knowledgeable about new trends and technologies. All of that can be achieved better working as a consortium to identify the best answers.”

The same logic holds true in the Pharma sector, he continues. “The human genome provided thousands of genes never studied before; among them there might be ‘diamonds,’ but no single company could build a diamond mine,” he declares. “If one wants to delve into these areas 20 years from commercialization, you want it to happen, but you do not need to own it. The value you create for your company might be seen 20 years from now; why not facilitate it faster? It’s kind of a necessity.”

What’s more, he points out, if you own something you have to worry about anti-competition laws and IP sharing agreements. “You’re spending all that time crafting legal agreements instead of creating science, and that has little commercial value.”

The open science approach “is so clear and clean when we talk with companies about what’s going on,” says Elizabeth. “We started doing it de facto, just relying on [the fact that] if you have students working on industry-funded projects there are terms safeguarding the students. There would be a first right of refusal for companies, but they never exercised that right. We ended up publishing everything; we did not do it deliberately.”

However, she adds, “In the last three or four years we have been doing it deliberately. We find the negotiations so much easier; it’s so clear they have the freedom to operate. The value to the company is we do not make it difficult for them to access the research they funded. It’s eye-opening to many of my colleagues how easy it has been, but we’ve done surveys. The companies want access to bright minds, socializing their industry with students. They also see value in belonging to a network.”

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