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Building a Biotech: IP, LES 2018 and protecting innovation

This weekend, our CEO Vivienne Williams will be attending the LES conference in Boston, USA. Read on to find her account of why this is important for Cellix, and why a strong IP portfolio is important for biotech start-ups, industry, universities and consumers.

Last night I arrived in Boston for the Licensing Executives Society (LES) annual conference 2018. While again looking over the schedule for the conference, it occurred to me that there are many misconceptions around intellectual property (IP) licensing, and a lack of knowledge about what it is and why it is vital for biotech.

Here are some of my thoughts on IP licensing, and the role that establishing strong IP has in the development of start-up biotech portfolios, innovation and diversity within the sector.

What is IP?

Intellectual property law is the subset of property law that covers the non-physical creations of creators of all kinds. These laws allow creators to prevent others from making, selling or offering the invention as covered by the patent, copyright or trademark acquired by the company. In the news, it is largely covered in relation to entertainment and authors rights (music, books, films, and television) as these are widely disseminated illegally through the internet.

What is often overlooked is how key these are in the worlds of start-ups and biotech; these laws are key in allowing innovators to take their ideas from lab bench to execution.

Why is IP important to biotech start-ups?

To quote Doug Kellogg: "If universities are the engine for discovery, then start-ups are the vehicle for innovation"¹. Biotech start-ups provide a different working atmosphere than later stage companies; a greater flexibility and urgency to translate ideas provide an unparalleled environment for innovation, invention and for ideas to develop. However, few early stage (and often, many later stage) biotechs have physical products to bring to market; instead, their advantage lies in the proprietary new technologies they have developed.

Image: Cellix's early days after our spin-out from Trinity College Dublin

Strong IP is how start-ups protect these proprietary technologies and build competitive advantage within the market. For clarity, in the context of biotechs when I discuss IP, I'm largely referring to establishing patents and licensing deals around these patents.

A strong patent portfolio also allows start-ups to raise venture capital, and build working relationships with other companies. The establishment of patents by a biotech is how the ideas of a small business can be protected from predation. The biotech patent portfolio allows investors to see the potential and applications of the proprietary technology. It also serves as a product which can be provided by the business, by licensing the technology to other companies who have pain points which could be solved by the new technology of the start-up. As seen in the graphic below, Kellogg pegs the establishment of patents as a key milestone in the early days of a biotech.

Image: Doug Kellogg's overview of the key milestones in the early days of a start-up, with patent filing (a form of IP) as an early step (Source: see footnotes).

What does that mean in concrete terms for biotech?

This discussion of IP may seem abstract and to have no practical implications, but this is not the case.

Consider this scenario: in the absence of patents and other forms of binding intellectual property law, there is nothing stopping later-stage companies with more established pipelines and facilities from taking the new technology and integrating it into their products. In this case, the start-up has no advantages, and will not be able to acquire vital funding from venture capitalists to develop their technology.

This scenario would lead to less innovation and fewer new products emerging on the market, resulting in a monopoly by certain companies. This would have the effect of stifling the pipeline of university-to-business start-up development, in the absence of any incentives to spin out, and reduce the cross-talk between industry and academia. This cross-talk is essential for new ideas and in the past has resulted in the formation of a huge number of companies – Genentech, which sold to Roche for $46.8 billion in 2009, started out as a collaboration between a venture capitalist and a UCSF professor.

In the presence of protection by well-drafted patents, a core team with a solid idea can build a business and commercialise their new technology by attracting funds from venture capital and building alliances with other companies. During this time, the proprietary technology is covered under a negative right to exclude competitors from applying the technology covered by the patent.

Cellix and IP at LES 2018

The purpose of the LES 2018 conference as a whole is to connect intellectual property professionals to LES and to each other. One of Cellix's core business models is the licensing of our technologies; this week, I'm looking forward to attending the IP Negotiation Skills course, and attending talks by experienced speakers on IP licensing in gene therapy, and how IP supports early innovation, business development, and partnering opportunities.

Image: LES is bringing IP to the forefront of biotech conversations

LES, and organisations like it, provide guidelines for best practices in licencing, as well as education at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. I mentioned previously partnering opportunities; we here at Cellix have a strong IP portfolio including our Inish Analyser technology – conferences like LES 2018 allow us to engage with those who require such technologies and discuss mutually beneficial projects and licensing deals.

Conclusions: Strong IP facilitates competition, diversity, investment and opportunity.

In summary, though a thorough understanding of intellectual property law may not seem like the biggest priority for biotechs, the protection provided by these laws is fundamental to allowing new technologies to translate from the lab bench to the market.

They allow for the diversity and competition within the biotechnology sector we see today, which in turn prevents larger corporations from holding monopolies over the market. It also, crucially, provides incentives for partnering within the life sciences sector; this cross-talk between business not only serves to provide huge opportunities to small business, but the collaborative nature of the work serves to advance the science behind the technologies.

IP protection facilitates the establishment and growth of new biotech hubs worldwide - Europe, for example, has a number of growing hubs currently². These new hubs not only allow for local job creation in the sciences, they also serve to incentivise investment in STEM courses and facilities at third level institutions. This investment supports both basic and applied research, strengthening the pipeline from abstract conceptual understandings to services and products available on the market. This improves choices available to consumers, and in the case of many medtechs, provides technologies which can improve the health of the general population.

Comments? Questions? Send me a message on Cellix's Twitter or LinkedIn.


¹California Institute of Quantitative Biosciences, University of California Santa Cruz. Mol Biol Cell. 2014 Nov 1; 25(21): 3280–3283.

doi: 10.1091/mbc.E14-06-1162


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