Inventing

I spoke recently at a meeting about Intellectual Property (IP). Some parts of a talk like that are inevitable and predictable. I stressed the importance of IP as an “Intangible Asset” within a company. (I blogged on this recently and since then, all that I read points to the importance of these assets, with 70% of the value of companies in some sectors being defined by Intangible Assets).

In my talk, I pointed out the different importance of IP to different industrial sectors, with the fast-moving world of ICT less concerned with protecting than getting a product to market, and the Pharma area needing the multi-annual protection that comes with a patent as the possible block-buster winds its way through tests and trials.

I highlighted the difference in attitude of (a) researchers in a company, where they have a defined product-related end-goal, and IP allows them to place a stake in the ground to defend their Klondike, and (b) academics who wander aimlessly at the frontiers of knowledge and occasionally see something unexpected and of value before anybody else.

But in the reflection before the presentation, I found myself thinking about patents that I was involved in, how they came about, and lessons that could be learned from those experiences.

The first example was from the 1980s, when I worked in NUI Galway. A Greek postdoc in my lab described and prepared a patent that showed a novel way to purify proteins. There was a dominant company in that market and the Industrial Liaison Officer (TTO in today’s language) made contact with them. The company offered a very small % royalty if they licenced it. We sniffed that this invention was worth more. They walked away and never came back. The patent died as there was no viable alternative company. We had put an exaggerated value on the invention. Today, the same happens too frequently in Ireland, leading to frustrating wrangling before a project even starts about how to divide the spoils of the potential product. Getting a value right is very important, but it needs realism, a little humility and maybe an external valuer to speed up negotiations.

The second example came when I was in Heidelberg and my lab discovered that the female sex hormone (oestrogen) worked in bone (where it is linked to Osteoporosis) through a different mechanism than is the case in the much more studied case of oestrogens in breast cancer. No patent was taken, in part because the difficulties and costs of protecting the patent would have been enormous and the institute I was working in was not structured to go into those battles. Indeed, in Ireland in the 1980s, there was a phase when patenting ideas would be stopped as there was no budget available to process them. I worry that the same could be the situation in the Ireland today as budgets get cut.

A third example was successful and started with a student project in NUI Galway. I wanted a rapid test developed for a fish pathogen. I could see that there could be a lot of these types of projects coming, so I reflected and developed a general way to develop a DNA probe for ‘any’ organism. With great colleagues in my lab, we developed the idea into a practical solution that was patented in due course through Enterprise Ireland. Seven years later, that patent was blocking the way to a new market for Roche and they licenced it. In the interim, the patent had been sub-licenced to a Belgium company as, amazingly, they had submitted their patent on the same day as us! The six-figure sum paid by Roche was well diluted on its way to the inventors’ bank account. But there were real benefits as payments for inventions in Ireland are tax-free to the inventor. The lessons also are that patience was needed to keep the patent active for a number of silent years and that every day can be important when thinking of submitting a patent application!

The final example is more current. In Heidelberg, my lab developed a new insight to how oestrogen switched on genes in breast cancer. We (again, a great job undertaken by a post-doc) identified new compounds that could interfere with this and with the way cancers grow in other tissues. A company (Elara Pharmaceuticals) was set up around the resulting patents. Three years later, the company has attracted significant investment from the German enterprise agencies and from venture capital and that will allow the potential therapeutic drug be brought to clinical trials…if everything works out right. Crucial here was the combination of grants and investment that were available and attracted. Without them, the potential of the IP would never be even close to being realised.

A final point: all of these examples (and others that popped out from the research in my lab over the years) were not planned or promised. They came from doing the best research we were capable of on fundamental questions. This remains my belief for those that get funding from SFI also – if excellence is supported, much more than knowledge will come from the investment. And once there is a culture in a lab or institute that is sensitised and ready to see these opportunities, these additional outcomes will arise. I think we have established that culture now in Ireland…and the increase in patents shows that the model is working.

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