Company Offering Open-Source Biological Reagents Hopes To Recapitulate Free Software's Success

from the the-value-of-free dept

It’s well-known that monopolies can lead to price-gouging, which produces effects like this:

I still have no idea how people can get away with charging several thousand dollars for a milligram of recombinant protein. That’s an amount that you can see with the naked eye, if your eyesight is really good, but even then, you can see it only just barely. If you had to make a recombinant protein in your undergraduate biology class, then you know that the cost of doing this is essentially the cost of highly refined sugar water (= culture media) plus the cost of highly refined salt water (= chromatography buffers).

That comes from a fascinating essay by John Schloendorn, founder and CEO of Gene And Cell Technologies, a regenerative medicine startup, which appears in Issue 4 of the BioCoder journal. But here’s the strange thing: the biological reagents market may show the classic symptoms of monopoly abuse, but as Schloendorn points out, there are very few actual monopolies here:

The protections of the closed-source biologics vending industry are actually thin as paper and brittle as glass. For most of this stuff, they have no patents, no copyright, no government regulations, hardly a lobby to speak of, and no monopolies of any kind. They manage to lock biotechnology away from new entrants and to keep the cost of doing science in the stratosphere for establishment professionals, solely through the physical possession of the source DNA and by imposing contractual restrictions on those willing to sign them.

Schloendorn notes the parallels with the software market, which also suggests an obvious solution to the problem of exorbitant prices: open-source biological reagents. That is precisely what Schloendorn has created:

I have synthesized, manufactured, tested, and fully validated a collection of open source plasmids [small circular DNA strands] coding for some of the very basic building blocks of biotechnology. I do charge an initial purchase price to pay for storage, ongoing quality control, and the provision of a reliable source of these molecules. But there is no proprietary barrier of any type on their use. You may grow them on your own, modify them, give them to others, sell them, sell products derived from them, and do whatever you (legally) want to do with them.

What’s fascinating here is to see the application of the business model commonly found in the world of open-source software — whereby the code is freely available, and customers effectively pay for a service that provides quality control — in the world of DNA. Given the easy profits that will be put at risk by this new offering, we can probably expect the same kind of scaremongering and lobbying from the incumbents that free software experienced when it became clear that it posed a serious threat to the traditional, high-margin world of closed-source code.

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Companies: gene and cell technologies

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Comments on “Company Offering Open-Source Biological Reagents Hopes To Recapitulate Free Software's Success”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Now isn’t this type of thing that actually bolsters competition and innovation? Once everybody is in the same playing field you get a traction in the direction of 1- being really good at it (ie: providing properly validated reagents and quality control with ease of scrutiny – believe me, that last part is actually in sore need of improvement) and 2- getting the head start in the next innovation. Once you’ve pioneered something you’ll become the standard for that. See Apple (albeit this advantage will cease at some point if you don’t keep yourself at the top of the wave).

For all the Intellectual Property bullshit we see nowadays this is a refreshing initiative.

Anonymous Coward says:

“They manage to lock biotechnology away from new entrants and to keep the cost of doing science in the stratosphere for establishment professionals, solely through the physical possession of the source DNA and by imposing contractual restrictions on those willing to sign them.”

Isn’t this the type of thing that patents are allegedly supposed to prevent from being kept secret. Yet all of the patents that do exist tell us nothing new, non-obvious, and useful while anything valuable is still kept secret. More proof that we should abolish patents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…except that not all patents that exist fall into this. There are just as many valid useful patents as there were 50 years ago (different patents of course, due to expiry).

The problem is, that along with that sane number of useful patents, there’s also a flood of insane patents attempting to claim ownership of anything that can be done, both with and without a computer. And the patent office, instead of putting in the extra man hours needed to reject them all, just stamps them and waits for someone to contest them, as they actually have enough staff to manage that (barely).

And meanwhile, other useful stuff, as you say, is wrapped up in trade secrets, and so would never hit the patent system in the first place.

But it’s not worthwhile to throw generalizations around when there’s already so much that’s true and concrete that CAN be fixed that needs to be fixed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As has been pointed out endlessly, patents are an option, not a requirement, and one alternative option is trade secret. Furthermore, as has been documented by multiple individuals, including people such as Boldrin and Levine, in certain art fields trade secret is preferred over patent, and apparently this is one of them.

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