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Beware of geeks bearing gifts

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We all know the story about how Greek soldiers, after a fruitless 10-year siege of Troy, overcame the fierce Trojan army by entering its heavily fortified compound inside a wooden horse. By hauling the beguiling victory trophy inside its compound, the Trojan civilisation initiated its own destruction.

Things that appear seductive are often never as appealing in reality. Strangely enough, the same can be said of an argument heard often by those of us involved in the commercialisation of public research generated at Australia’s universities and research institutions.

The argument goes that it is lack of access to information and new knowledge, and particularly valuable IP, holds back greater innovation and prevents many of society’s problems from being solved. But the stinger is in the tail – if Australian taxpayer money has been used to fund research, the public should have free access to the results of this research, right?

Wrong! Firstly, it is incorrect to assume that public value will always be maximised simply by providing easy access at no cost to this research. Secondly, what prevents the “public” in other countries using that information for their own commercial gain, then charging the Australian public to appreciate the benefits?

Proponents of such “open access” frequently cite the open source software movement – now embraced by IBM and even more recently by Apple in its new iPhone – to illustrate the advantages of widespread community collaboration in the development of new standards and software, and that such “free” software can still result in widespread commercial application.

User-led innovation and community collaboration, as demonstrated in the multiplicity of iPhone applications, certainly has its place, provided mechanisms exist for contributors to receive their fair share of the benefits or rewards. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that this is the best, indeed only, form of collaboration that brings triple bottom line benefits to the public.

There are multiple forms of collaboration when innovating, and in order to fund ongoing development, some require control over who participates and who has access to the IP created. “Open innovation” is a broad term that is used to describe the collaborative exchange of IP along the value chain, in order to develop new products or services that will deliver value to customers. Proctor and Gamble is the most frequently cited exemplar of the open innovation process, with over 50 percent of its products now the result of collaborations with multiple partner organisations that undertake research, development and cross licensing of IP.

However, open innovation can involve varying levels of participation in the collaboration and varying levels of ownership of the intellectual property that results.

Too many people who should know better confuse “open innovation” with “open access”. Why does it matter? Because almost everyone agrees that open innovation, involving deep and trusted collaboration, is essential for companies to grow and economies to thrive. Open access is another matter entirely.  Proctor and Gamble is a fine practitioner of open innovation but certainly does not provide open access to its IP. Is “openness” a Trojan horse that seduces us into embracing “open access”?

Open access can block commercialisation as a path to market, because new IP is no longer protected. Commercialisation, like open innovation, involves many complex issues and needs careful unpacking, rather than Trojan horses that could retard it. Most publicly funded research already exists in the public domain by virtue of the fact that most scientists both want and need to publish. That is the right thing to do, so the frontiers of knowledge continue to advance.

But let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is much IP that should be directly commercialised to bring benefits to society, and that frequently requires IP to be kept confidential. The commercialisation of the Gardasil cancer vaccine would never have proceeded in an open access regime, because no company could have afforded the clinical trials and development pathway required to bring the drug to the masses without exclusive rights.

Optimising public value from publicly-funded research will require multiple pathways to market – some that appear to be “free” (although there is always a cost), others through narrower channels.  Without stretching the Trojan analogy too far, it has to be horses for courses. Direct commercialisation of university IP can often create massive environmental, economic and societal value, even if a Proctor and Gamble or a CSL benefit commercially in the process. Thousands of women who would otherwise suffer from cervical cancer will doubtless support me on this one.

Dr Rowan Gilmore is CEO of the Australian Institute for Commercialisation, which helps businesses, research organisations and governments increase the success rate of commercialising Australian innovation.

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