How Patents Harm Biotech Innovation

from the scaring-people-off dept

Patent defenders often claim that patents are necessary because top venture capitalists would never invest without patents. And yet, we keep pointing to examples of some of the best venture capitalists in the business who are quite skeptical of patents. For the most part, those have been limited to software patents, but Brad Feld seems to have jumped the hurdle to recognizing it's not just software patents that are the problem, and is digging into the research on how much patents have held back innovation in lots of other fields as well (Brad: if you want a list of more such research, let us know...). He's written up a post about some upcoming research concerning patents in the biotech field, where he explains how patents are hindering innovation in that field as well by scaring off research into certain areas:
Regularly, patent advocates tell me how important patents are for the biotech and life science industries. However, there apparently is academic research in the works that shows that patents actually slow down innovation in biotech. The specific example we discussed was that there is increasing evidence that when a professor or company gets a patent in the field of genetics research, other researchers simply stop doing work in that specific area. As a result, the number of researchers on a particular topic decreases, especially if the patent is broad. It's not hard to theorize that this results in less innovation around this area over time.
I can't wait to see the final results of that study, as it would fit in well with a few other studies that have found similar results.

Filed Under: biotech, brad feld, innovation, patents, vcs

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  1. icon
    Richard (profile), 6 Feb 2010 @ 6:07am

    If a researcher is granted a patent in an area after spending time and money to get there, it is unlikely that they are just going to put something on the shelf and ignore it. That would be like spending millions to build the world fastest F1 car,and then never taking it to a race......
    ....I also think that investors and researchers moving to other areas is a good business move.

    These comments prove that you are ignorant of the way that science and technology advances.

    Consider an example from an area where there are no patents to get in the way, theoretical physics.

    In the 1950's two exciting new ideas came forward Yang-Mills Vector bosons (extending electromagnetism to potentially explain nuclear interactions) and spontaneous symmetry breaking (invented by Goldstone, explaining how a set of physical laws with perfect symmetry could give rise to an observed universe that is asymmetric).

    Both ideas had huge potential - and had they occurred in a field where patents were possible they would most definitely have been patented.

    However neither was capable of any immediate progress because each had a major problem that blocked further development so both went "onto the shelf".

    This type of thing can happen in any field.

    Now if other researchers had ignored these ideas because they were patented and gone to work elsewhere that is how it would have stayed.

    However there are no patents in theoretical physics so Peter Higgs was able to put the two ideas together and solve the problems of both.

    Had this been a practical, patent infested, field he would have been able to do nothing without getting a licence from both Goldstone and Yang and Mills. If either had turned awkward then progress would have been stymied.

    My bet is that this phenomenon has already occurred in biotech, halting progress in some areas.

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