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Latha Jishnu: A singular victory for open innovation

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Some weeks ago, I had excited mail from Professor Richard Jefferson. The American-born molecular biologist, who lives in Australia, was writing from Geneva airport a couple of days before he was scheduled to give a speech at a major UN meeting on Intellectual Property and Public Policy Issues and he was clearly elated that his crusade of decades for an open, collaborative system of scientific research was paying off finally.

At the conference sponsored by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) on July 13 and 14, he would launch his Initiative for Open Innovation (IOI) globally to promote transparency in the patent system, “a disruptive democratising cyber infrastructure to make it possible to turn the patent system into a transparent, fixable part of society,” as he called it in his letter. “I hope you will find this as exciting as I do.”

Anyone who shares Jefferson’s passion for democratising information is bound to be delighted. The IOI promises to be one of the most effective ways of using science and technology to solve the real problems facing the world by bringing together public organisations, research institutions and private companies on a common platform to seek answers to a host of problems that call for urgent solutions. (A fuller profile can be read in The appeal of Jefferson’s open source model, BS, May 28, 2008). The IOI is a new global facility dedicated to making the world’s patent systems more transparent, inclusive and navigable

The maverick scientist is CEO of Cambia, a pathbreaking non-profit institute which has been creating new paradigms and tools for sharing science for public good. IOI builds on the platform of Cambia’s Patent Lens (, an autonomous, open access web-based full text search facility for patents worldwide which has become the most prominent free patent search tool available, listing and explaining over nine million patents.

Jefferson believes the insurmountable patent thicket surrounding scientific breakthroughs is stifling much-needed innovation in a host of areas, specially health and agriculture in developing countries, and he is desperately keen that public scientific research gets a boost through open access systems. One of those who subscribes to this philosophy is Samir Brahmachari, director general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), one of the largest groupings of public research institutes in the world. Brahmachari is a member of the international advisory council of IOI, and is scheduled to attend its inaugural meeting starting August 16 at Thala Beach, near Cairns.

Brahmachari is the force behind CSIR’s open source drug discovery programme which is aimed at finding cures for diseases that afflict the poorest of the world, and he will have something to share at the IOI meeting. After rubbing shoulders with Jefferson and the impressive list of scientists he has roped in for IOI, Brahmachari will find a lot more to take away from the meeting.

The IOI was established by Cambia and the Queensland University of Technology with a $3-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008, after an assiduous campaign by Jefferson. “I guess if I have one trait, it is persistence,” confesses the highly regarded scientist.

At last month’s conference, Jefferson told the international gathering that patents had become a lightning-rod for criticism and debate, because “Our inability to navigate the growing volume and complexity of worldwide patent landscapes has created a climate of fear and uncertainty that stymies policy reform and hinders innovation.”

Some of the fear should hopefully recede once IOI gets into its stride. To gauge the significance of what Jefferson is doing one need to have some understanding of how the global patents system operates. Patents are national in scope, unlike scientific publications, and they are filed in the language(s) of the nation in question. This confounds the ability of diverse innovators around the world to understand and navigate these patents in the absence of relevant language skills. “Jurisdictions that are |critical for engagement in global health challenges, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, have opaque patent offices that are virtually impossible to search effectively, even in person,” points out Jefferson. These obscurities render dialogue about IP rights, responsibilities, policies and practices unproductive, assertion and conjecture-based and ideology-ridden.”

But it is not individual patent documents that matter so much so much as “the aggregate meaning and impact of many patents in many nations and markets, their associated business, economic, technological, legal and social context, and their interrelationships that is needed to advance innovation.” Thus, it becomes absolutely essential to understand the patent landscape in which innovation is to occur “in order to make the wisest choice of technology, partners, investment and outcomes”. Thanks to this guitar-playing scientist, navigation of this complex landscape set to become much easier and more promising.

First Published: Wed, August 05 2009. 00:36 IST