"Patents on Seeds?!"
Patents create transparency about inventions and enable their further development. For research-intensive Switzerland in particular, patents are a central building block in order to remain a leading location for innovation. At the swiss-food talk on 17 May, three representatives from the fields of research, start-up and industry spoke about the reasons for and significance of patents, particularly in plant breeding.
Thursday, May 19, 2022
Patents help science transfer knowledge to society so that it can develop its benefits. For start-ups, patents provide the necessary investment security to enable them to launch a product or technology on the market. Large companies make innovations accessible to the general public with their reach. In return, the innovation protection gives inventors a right to market for a limited period of time. Research and development also includes patent research. Transparency simplifies the further development of existing inventions. In the field of seeds, there are Europe-wide accessible platforms for information on existing patents and for negotiating licenses.
Patents as enablers
Michael Hengartner, President of the ETH Board, stresses that knowledge transfer is one of the central tasks of a university and that it can make a significant contribution to economic development. One way to achieve this is through patents that are licensed to existing companies or spin-offs and provide them with protection so that they can prove themselves in the market. A patent is a social contract between society and the inventor. An innovation becomes publicly available and the inventor receives an exclusive right to market his invention, limited in time and geographical terms. In connection with new breeding technologies, the fear is often expressed that these will lead to a flood of patents. Professor Hengartner does not believe that. "CRISPR is the same as PCR techniques in the past,"says Hengartner. The number of patents was not a problem at that time. "I don't see the problem with CRISPR today either. The new technologies are much more ‹enablers› than inhibitors. They will fuel innovation.
Migrated know-how does not return
The bridge from science to development is built by Roman Mazzotta, country president Syngenta Switzerland and head of the crop protection legal department. The research industry invests hundreds of millions of Swiss francs each year in order to use its reach to make innovations accessible to the wider public. Patents guarantee companies that they will be compensated for their large investments. The commercial use of a patent by third parties requires a license agreement in all sectors. In the seed sector, pan-European active platforms (PINTO, ILP-Vegetable, ACLP) are creating greater transparency by facilitating the search for patents and the negotiation of licenses. "A patent search is part of the business effort,"says Mazzotta. The allegation that companies could register patents on plant varieties does not apply: "There are no patents on whole varieties, but only on individual new properties of plants. In Europe, only 1.5 percent of existing varieties are affected by patents. On the other hand, more than 50 percent of all productivity gains are based on improved varieties. New plant properties are research-intensive and must therefore be protected. This is precisely because climate change poses huge challenges for global food production. Much more food needs to be produced with fewer resources. But promising technologies such as CRISPR are banned in Switzerland and Europe. "Research and development takes place where it is possible. If not in Switzerland, then in the USA, Australia or Asia. If this know-how moves elsewhere, it will never come back. According to Mazzotta, Switzerland must take care of its research location. "Research and development needs to be open to technology and to protect intellectual property. This also includes the acquisition of patent fitness by large and small companies in order to compete internationally. Because patent rights exist all over the world.
Universities earn on patents
Erich Bucher, Chairman of the Board of Directors of epibreed AG, will make the connection to practice. The company is a spin-off from the University of Basel. It has the exclusive commercialization rights of a patent owned by the University of Basel. "The University of Basel also earns a share in our patent. If we earn money, our business will flow money back into research," says Bucher. The patent refers to a specific method for plant breeding. The method, known as TEgenesis, enables the breeding of stress-resistant plants. Known stress factors are wetness, heat, dryness, salty soils or pest infestation. The method is based on the knowledge that plants are capable of learning. They adapt to new events in the long term. However, if a plant is only temporarily exposed to a changed situation, a learning blocker is activated. The plant does not change. With TEgenesis, the learning blocker of the plant can be temporarily bypassed. The plant learns to adapt quickly to new events. The plants grown in this way require fewer resources, such as water or plant protection products, due to their resistance. But TEgenesis is covered by the Genetic Engineering Act in Switzerland: "As long as our invention is not permitted, we cannot use the patent,"says Bucher with frustration. Meanwhile, the time for patent protection is running out. He therefore no longer allows his latest inventions to be patented: "We keep our new inventions secret. This is regrettable, because in the case of business secrecy, knowledge is not published, unlike the way it is done through a patent. Other companies cannot build on this.
The talk showed that from ETH to start-up there is a great interest in effective innovation protection. This also applies to agriculture. Patents, however, are not in conflict with traditional plant breeding. This will not change. The need to adapt plants more quickly to climate change will increase the importance of new technologies. That's why there's hardly any way around more patent fitness: SMEs must also deal with patents and learn to exploit the advantages of the system.
Patents protect innovation and at the same time they drive innovation. During our Swiss-Food Talk on August 15, three innovation experts discussed the importance of patents for the Swiss economy.
The European Patent Office reports more patent applications for 2022 than ever before. A particularly large number of patents were filed in the field of sustainable technologies - such as clean energy. Switzerland is still one of the most innovative countries in the world, ranking seventh in Europe. To ensure that this remains the case, policymakers must continue to advocate for research-friendly framework conditions in the future.