Latent Patents and Risky Business
Discoveries at research institutions are often funded through partnerships and grants, serving both the interests of corporate sponsors and the public, all while advancing the cause of basic research. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for private biotechs to shoulder the responsibility of basic research. In fact, the numerous successes of licensing publicly funded research demonstrate that profit-risky work can be completed and risk shared as a collaborative, stepwise effort.
Streamlining this process may very well be part of the industry's general cost-cutting trend of contracting out or spinning off entire research divisions while building a portfolio of promising technologies through licensing and acquisitions. The Patent Reform Act of 2011, now called the America Invents Act, will likely further encourage corporate-institutional collaborations with the change from "first-to-invent" to "first-to-file."
Current methods of institutional technology transfer, where inventions are not disclosed or patented until prospective licensees are lined up, will become more of a liability under the new rules—a good reason to establish links to industry as the basic research is ongoing.
These changes might also favor higher volumes of smaller-scope patents, which in turn favors companies with significant legal resources. We might even see the biotech equivalent of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC—a corporate idea generator and basic research zone—become part of the research renaissance of these giants. It's a fascinating concept, but it's up in the air whether these funding shake-ups will favor extensive webs of external collaborations or assortments of self-contained, task-oriented internal research research groups.
In any case, the shifting terrain of funding, regulation, and intellectual property will likely continue to favor potentially lucrative projects. But factors such as publications, reputations, and grants also tilt the scales in academia, industry, and government.
Across all of these realms, scientific inquiry and technological innovation depend on the answer to one all-important compound question: Is there someone interested in doing the research, and can that person convince others to help foot the bill?