July 11, 2003
A team of 14 institutions and
foundations, including Ohio State
University, is beginning a new national effort to make
access to developments in biotechnology easier.
The new initiative, called the
Public-Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture
(PIPRA), is described in the July 11 issue of
Science. PIPRA is
a roadmap of sorts, one that will help guide scientists at
public research institutions in managing and sharing their
It will also change how
universities and other research institutions license new
technological developments. The end result will be that
universities will have an easier time researching and
commercializing new crops when multiple institutions own parts
of the intellectual property rights.
A patent protects intellectual
property and is generally issued to the inventor of a new
technology, while a license gives a business or institution the
right to put that intellectual property into use.
“Creating across-the-board access
to proprietary and patented agricultural information will be a
boon for our researchers and their colleagues at other
institutions,” said Ohio State President Karen Holbrook, a
co-author of the report.
“By sharing such knowledge with
peer institutions we can better serve local communities
economically while supporting our university’s global-scale
including Ohio State, historically are the source for
information on new, improved crop varieties and other advances
in biotechnology. But the last 20 years have brought about
important changes in the way in which intellectual property
rights for living material are being granted, as well as the way
public institutions manage their intellectual property.
Such fundamental changes in the
nature and ownership of innovations in basic and applied
agricultural research have complicated the mission of U.S.
public research institutions, according to the report.
Agricultural innovations are increasingly more important,
reflected by the biotechnology industry’s desire to license such
information and keep it proprietary.
“In biotechnology, there are so
many patents affecting the various processes involved in a new
development that any one of those patents can block
commercialization or use of that invention,” said
Slack, Ohio State’s associate vice president for
agricultural administration. “Involvement in PIPRA lets member
institutions have access to multiple technologies that are
patented by other institutions or otherwise protected.”
Slack, who also directs the
Research and Development Center in Wooster, added that
multiple institutions often hold patents for some aspect of the
same technology, which may constrain the commercialization of
the technology or the actual research that the investigator is
A university can assign use of
its intellectual property rights through licensing the
development to businesses interested in commercialization.
In agriculture, the greatest
business value involves big-market crops that grow on tens of
millions of acres in the United States, such as corn, wheat,
soy, cereal grains and cotton. However, many patents cover
specific steps or processes that lead to the development of new
varieties of crops and, therefore, affect not only these major
crops, but specialty crops as well.
Specialty crops, such as
cranberries and pumpkins, are grown on many fewer acres of land,
often in specific regions of the country.
These specialty crops aren’t as
financially attractive to big-market agricultural companies, and
the complicated negotiations needed to enable public scientists
access to appropriate technology to develop improved varieties
of these crops is inhibitory, Slack said. There is a similar
impact in developing crops globally, which hinders subsistence
farmers in developing countries who depend on new technological
developments to improve their staple crops.
According to the report, public
sector institutions hold roughly one-quarter of currently
patented agricultural inventions – a substantially larger
holding of intellectual property than any single agricultural
biotechnology company. But these holdings are fragmented at
best. Multiple ownerships make it difficult for a single
institution to have access to a complete set of intellectual
property rights, which is needed to commercialize a new crop
Driving PIPRA is the belief that
these inventions – often made by scientists at public research
institutions – are necessary to help improve specialty crops
grown in the United States as well as to assist subsistence
farmers in developing countries in growing enough food.
To meet these goals, PIPRA member
institutions plan to:
- Establish a mechanism for easy
information exchange among PIPRA partners.
- Give researchers the freedom
to operate by clearing all intellectual property barriers as
well as the regulatory and cultural constraints associated
with bringing a new product to market.
- When issuing new licenses to
private-sector agriculture businesses, public-sector
institutions will include a clause in the license retaining
the rights to use the new technology for humanitarian
- Work toward food security for
the poor of the world. To do so, members will accelerate
research and development in order to improve staple crops such
as rice, sorghum and cassava, crops that are essential to
subsistence farmers in developing countries who face serious
problems with drought, poor soils and plant diseases.
- Help states improve the
nutritional quality, disease-resistance and environmental
impact of specialty crops in the United States, as well as
create potential new markets for these foods.
- Work with the private sector
to develop opportunities for commercializing new technological
PIPRA participants include
Cornell, Michigan State, North Carolina State, and Ohio State
universities; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; the
University of California System, including UC-Riverside and
UC-Davis; the universities of Florida and Wisconsin-Madison; the
Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research; the Rockefeller and
McKnight foundations; and the Donald Danforth Plant Science