Comments Re: Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Talk on Synthetic Biology: Feasibility of the Open Source Movement

Posted by – June 26, 2009

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a recent talk on Synthetic Biology, Patents, and Open Source.  This talk is now available via the web; link below.  I’ve written some comments on viewing the talk, also below.

WASHINGTON – Wednesday, June 17, 2009Synthetic biology is developing into one of the most exciting fields in science and technology and is receiving increased attention from venture capitalists, government and university laboratories, major corporations, and startup companies. This emerging technology promises not only to enable cheap, lifesaving new drugs, but also to yield innovative biofuels that can help address the world’s energy problems.

Today, advances in synthetic biology are still largely confined to the laboratory, but it is evident from early successes that the industrial potential is high. For instance, estimates by the independent research and advisory firm Lux Research indicate that one-fifth of the chemical industry (now estimated at $1.8 trillion) could be dependent on synthetic biology by 2015.

In an attempt to enable the technology’s potential, some synthetic biologists are building their own brand of open source science. But as these researchers develop the necessary technological tools to realize synthetic biology’s promises, there is as yet no legal framework to regulate the use and ownership of the information being created.

Will this open source movement succeed? Are life sciences companies ready for open source? What level of intellectual property (IP) protection is necessary to secure industry and venture capital involvement and promote innovation? And does open source raise broader social issues? On June 17, a panel of representatives from various sectors will discuss the major challenges to future IP developments related to synthetic biology, identify key steps to addressing these challenges, and examine a number of current tensions surrounding issues of use and ownership.

Synthetic Biology: Feasibility of the Open Source Movement

  • Arti K. Rai, Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law, Duke Law School
  • Mark Bünger, Director of Research, Lux Research
  • Pat Mooney, Executive Director, ETC Group
  • David Rejeski, Moderator, Director, Synthetic Biology Project

Synthetic Biology: Feasibility of the Open Source Movement

While viewing the webcast (which we are all lucky to have viewable online), I wrote some comments.  Since others were interested in the comments, I’ll post ’em here.

Arti K. Rai, Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law, Duke Law School

  • Comparison to synthesis cost (12 mo) to Moore’s Law (18 mo).

Comment: Everyone loves discussing Moore’s Law. However, “Seagate’s Law” trumps Moore’s Law. This is the observation that information storage density increases at a much faster slope than silicon density.   Synthesis (not soo new, really) isn’t that useful without knowing what to synthesize. The increasing information storage capability ties into the increasing amount of biological information from genomics, which is really the true accelerating factor to Synthetic Biology.   A third curve is network bandwidth, which in slope, trumps both Moore’s Law and Seagate’s Law — so the genomic information stored is accessible globally over networks like the internet.   Whereas, synthesis cost, in reality, follows supply-demand-volume curves only as far as people have a strong need to synthesize and the volume business presents itself: which drives down the costs through competition. So let’s all thank the human genome project (funded by U.S. taxpayers) and the many other genome projects for sequencing “stuff”, plus the information storage and database guys (bioinformatics) for continuing to link databases together — this is the real “power curve” to follow.  In fact the Systems Biology dependency of the curve, which characterizes gene/protein function, seems the bottleneck in Synthetic Biology — leading to the question, “synthesize what? We don’t know what these genes do yet, or they just don’t work when they’re put together.”

  • Arti K. Rai explains what synthetic biology is. (Why have a lawyer explain the technology? Shouldn’t a bioengineer explain the definition of the technology first?)   She skips explaining the most important part: characterization of genetic parts (the toughest) and jumps right into explaining that parts can be connected together to create interesting things; this missing point will likely be important in the later discussion.
  • Patents: She is currently examining the quality & type of patents being issued. “The patent office has granted poor patents [in computer science] and some of these problems are showing up in synthetic biology, suffering from prototypical problems of software patents.” Follow Supreme Court case for interesting decision on Synthetic Biology patents.  There are secret infringements already occurring, this is well known.  The Biobrick registry infringes on patents; this is already known. “Open source disavows patents” therefore “open source could be a viable approach .. such as BSD licenses or viral license … The viral approach has difficulty in syn bio & is unlikely to be successful due to high infrastructure cost which requires patents.   Good points are mentioned regarding the viral nature of some open source licenses (businesses can thrive on BSD licenses, while not so strongly on viral open source licenses).
  • Open vs. Closed: “Codon devices folded [perhaps] due to the freely available information [leading to lack of funds]”. Free & freely reusable works in software because software has no reproduction or manufacturing cost — in hardware, there is cost. “For commercialization, open may not [probably doesn’t] work well.”
  • Security. “Syn bio is a classic dual use technology which can be used for good or ill.”   Transparency is a good benefit of open-ness.

Mark Bünger, Director of Research, Lux Research

Mark Bünger has previously mentioned DIYBio during Synthetic Biology studies, and is tracking progress of open source projects with respect to the business of biotechnology.

  • “We usually take the corporate perspective” but “hinges on ability to commercialize”
  • “These companies [Venter, etc] need to own their IP otherwise they won’t get funding”
  • Open innovation: “has become defacto. 70-80% of [advanced tech] companies are working with external rather than keeping everything in- house. Open innovation is here to stay.”.
  • Defines syn bio in terms of Radio Shack electronics parts.
  • Syn bio researchers are in fact using older methods (70’s) to perform their synthesis, it’s democratized technology already. His middle-schooler hopes to perform a genetic engineering experiment (glowing bacteria) in school.

Comment: what’s missing is the characterization of the parts.

  • “Then there’s this group called DIY Bio .. democratizing these tools [in similar way to software]”. “You can’t enter bioinformatics and expect to get [venture] funding since everything is open source”.

My comment:  The irony: so you mean inventors are “forced” to sell a real product rather than floating? That’s better long term, than the Venture Capital way.  The Dot com effect (with required bomb when the products didn’t materialize) was much more destructive than necessary. Also: due to global financial market issues (the great meltdown), VC is currently and is expected in the future to be on the decline, so innovation will have to happen in new ways other than relying on deep pockets. Build a product, not a business plan (the opposite: build a business plan and not a product, has become the more popular method since the ’90s).

  • Patents on genes may be necessary; “the method of finding the gene [breast cancer] was so costly & time consuming that no one could do it without being able to patent it. .. Until cost is reduced.” Patenting genes vs. patenting pathways: “need to be able to patent entire circuits.”

Why not discuss patent length, vs. patent scope? Patent anything reasonable as long as the patent lasts no more than 2 years, vs. the current system which patents anything reasonable and lasts decades.

Some additional perspectives, which I hope to see discussed in the future by the Synthetic Biology marketplace:

  1. One of the main benefits of open source technology is speed of response which is possible when bugs are discovered: “there are many eyeballs looking at the problem”. As I noted before as a simple example, open source operating systems were able to provide fixes hardware bugs in Intel Pentium processors within hours, vs. corporations taking months.   Ideally, “open bio” could solve emerging biology issues (such as emerging biological viruses) because there are “many eyeballs looking at the problem”: global collaboration.  This technological ability isn’t yet possible, though it will be in the future. Patents create technology lockup, thus preventing the “many eyeball” solution:  the technology is as not transparent as compared to an open source technology.    We live in a world which is becoming more interconnected while simultaneously entering an aging bubble: these are important aspects for society’s well-being, thus global collaboration to solve emerging biological and medical needs is a timely issue.
  2. No one has yet addressed liability (and instead only focused on biosecurity). The original open source software licenses were based heavily on liability debates and the licenses were required to contain the ””AS IS”, WITHOUT WARRANTY’‘ liability clauses. The proposed licensing of Synthetic Biology does not mention liability.   What happens to the liability issue, especially in a self-reproducing system, when building a larger device from smaller open source components?  I compared these licenses previously in Share-Alike Genetic Engineering Intellectual Property Licenses.
  3. Finally: Where is the “Open Biology Freedom Foundation” which compares in form and function to the Electronic Freedom Foundation in the software industry?   Such an organization would assert rights to democratize Biotech and likely act as a shield for the patent issues. This organization would also act as a watchdog for open biotechnology to regulators. Who backed Linux during the massive SCO Unix patent lawsuits? — It was the EFF.

Thanks to the Woodrow Wilson Center for the ability to watch this discussion over the Internet, and hope to see more such open discussion soon.