Gene Sequencing Giant Tries To Use Patents To Block Rising Star's Pocket-Sized Unit From US

from the anti-innovation dept

Last year, Techdirt wrote about how one of the most significant breakthroughs in the field of genomics is already embroiled in a nasty patent battle. But it’s not just the fundamental techniques in this field that are being held back by selfish attempts to “own” key technologies. An article in the MIT Technology Review reports that the dominant manufacturer of DNA sequencing machines, Illumina, is trying to use patents to throttle an upstart rival:

Illumina said today it would try to block commercial sales of a disruptive new DNA sequencing instrument developed by a high-flying British rival, Oxford Nanopore.

In a patent lawsuit [pdf] and a separate complaint [pdf] with the U.S. International Trade Commission, Illumina said the British company’s cutting-edge DNA sequencing devices contain stolen ideas and should be stopped at the docks.

Oxford Nanopore denies that it is infringing on any patent that Illumina controls, but needs to be able to prove that not just once, but twice. As well as suing in the courts, Illumina is trying to use the International Trade Commission (ITC) loophole that Techdirt has been warning about for many years now. The ITC does not award damages, but can impose injunctions that block the import of items it deems infringing. And that’s precisely what Illumina wants, in order to stop the British Oxford Nanopore from challenging it in the US with its new technology, which offers important advantages over Illumina’s systems:

Illumina’s refrigerator-sized instruments are fast and accurate (see “Why Illumina Is Number One”). But because it works differently, Oxford’s MinION, as the device is called, is small enough to be portable (it’s about the size of a cell phone) and reads out very long stretches of DNA.

Although it’s slower and less accurate than Illumina’s instruments, nanopore technology threatens to become a competitor as scientists find entirely new applications for it like sequencing Ebola viruses and diagnosing patients from a makeshift lab in Guinea.

According to the MIT Technology Review article, which gives more details on how the nanopore technology works, more than a thousand teams are already using Oxford Nanopore’s pocked-sized sequencing unit. It offers capabilities that Illumina not only cannot match but is unlikely to match any time soon:

In asking U.S. trade officials to investigate Oxford and possibly bar imports of the MinION to the U.S., Illumina could anger researchers, since no comparable technology is available. Illumina has never announced plans to sell a nanopore product of its own.

So, rather than competing by launching its own equivalent product, a big, successful company that dominates a market is trying to use legal actions to squash an exciting new technology before it becomes a serious threat. In other words, yet another case of patents being used not to innovate, for the benefit of the public, but to stifle innovation, solely for the benefit of the current market leader.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+



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Companies: illumnia, oxford nanopore

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Comments on “Gene Sequencing Giant Tries To Use Patents To Block Rising Star's Pocket-Sized Unit From US”

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14 Comments
Beech says:

Silly

“In asking U.S. trade officials to investigate Oxford and possibly bar imports of the MinION to the U.S., Illumina could anger researchers, since no comparable technology is available.”

Please, if Illumina gets all the competition blocked they don’t need to care who they anger, because they’re the only game in town…which is exactly what they want.

Ninja (profile) says:

I’m thinking here. Suppose they succeed in blocking everything in the US. Not only this useful equipment but everything American companies (or not) ever have some dominance in the US. See where I(‘m getting at? It won’t take long before the US becomes the new stone age representative comparing to other countries. Of course, short term profits are a certainty though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: All the more curious

Also, I’m missing the part of the story where they discussed licensing the patent and ON decided that the patent wasn’t applicable, and so the two went to court to contest the applicability of the patent.

How did it skip this step and move right into blocking sales and distribution of a product? Illumina obviously knew how the product worked right from the initial development phases. The product is already in use; why are they rent seeking after the fact instead of during the development and production process, since they were involved there?

Capt ICE Enforcer says:

Not fair

Please understand that Illumina would love to compete and build a smaller more capable device able to make everyone happy and a less expensive rate. But they can’t compete because of fairness. Illumina didn’t file a patent for a smaller version of their device. But the MinION did create a patent for a small product. So the Illumina would be infringing on MinION patents. Which would not be fair.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not fair

“Please understand that Illumina would love to compete and build a smaller more capable device able to make everyone happy and a less expensive rate. But they can’t compete because of fairness. Illumina didn’t file a patent for a smaller version of their device. But the MinION did create a patent for a small product. So the Illumina would be infringing on MinION patents. Which would not be fair.”

This is nonsense.

You don’t patent the size of the machine. You patent how it works. The two machines are orthognal technologies, and operate completely differently.

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