A movement has started called the Biological Innovation for an Open Society (BIOS) initiative by molecular geneticist Dr. Richard Jefferson, founder and CEO of the CAMBIA (Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture) in Canberra. BIOS is an attempt to establish an open-source technology movement in the biotechnology industry, similar to the computing industry’s open-source software movement.

BIOS provides biotechnology with its own free ‘operating system’: a public-domain toolkit and associated patents, aimed at freeing researchers worldwide to innovate without restriction, and without being forced into partnerships or unfavorable royalty agreements. They have developed a core toolkit of patented techniques that will expand into a protected ‘commons’, protected by licenses and other contracts, as biotechnology researchers and agencies around the world contribute new ideas and refinements.

Jefferson is concerned about the lack of sustainable food production, fragile rural economies, poor nutrition, environmental degradation, and poor public health practices and given insufficient attention to diseases and medical conditions of poor people in marginalized communities. He argues that BIOS will facilitate a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to biotechnology innovation. He argues that the tools for innovation should be a shared, public resource, freely accessible to all researchers and businesses, with everyone contributing to their improvement.

The BIOS project does not address the question of whether this could lead to increased or decreased innovation. More importantly, would such tools be commercialized? Typically, in a regulation-ladened industry like biotech, it is difficult to imagine that companies would be willing to expend the resources it would take to get a product to market. Generally, broad patent protection is essential to the development of biotechnology. Biotechnology companies consume large amounts of capital and resources to develop new therapeutics even while the failure rates in the biotechnology industry are extraordinary. For illustration, in order to get just one new drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration, companies will typically screen 5,000 to 10,000 compounds, spending $800 million over the course of 14 years from initial screening to FDA approval.

While it sounds good in principle, I’ll be interested in seeing how BIOS progresses. It may be that we need to bear the short-term cost (a 20-year patent monopoly) in order to gain the benefit of the innovation provided for all time. Read more here.

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