Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2003


-- Alan Bennett, UC Office of Technology Transfer, (510) 587-6090

-- Gregory Graff, Agricultural and Resource Economics, cell (510) 847-8661/office (510) 643-2313

-- Pat Bailey, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-9843

-- Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley Public Affairs, (510) 643-7741


Public institutions have played a major role in fundamental agricultural biotechnology research during the past two decades. Through a broad-based collaboration, these research institutions will be better able to provide a platform of patented technologies that can be used to develop a generation of new genetically engineered crops, reports a team of University of California researchers.

The researchers' survey of U.S. and international agricultural biotechnology patent ownership appears as a feature article in this month's issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

"By carefully selecting and examining this collection of patents that represents the agricultural biotechnology industry, we were able to develop a concrete measure of the global research and development activity in this field and, in particular, look at the relative contributions of the public and private sectors to the technology base," said Alan B. Bennett, executive director for the University of California's Office of Research Administration and Technology Transfer and a co-author on the study.

"The most striking results of the survey are the proportion of ag biotech inventions that come from public-sector inventors and the broad distribution of those inventions across different technology areas important for applying biotechnology to agriculture," added study co-author Gregory Graff, a research associate in UC Berkeley's department of agricultural and resource economics.

Public-private patent distribution

The study examines ownership of 14,393 international patents registered in the United States, Europe and Japan and through the international Patent Cooperation Treaty. The researchers -- two biologists, two economists and an information technology specialist -- found that public research institutions have generated 24 percent of all patents in agricultural biotechnology. This is an unusually large share -- nearly 10 times the number -- compared with publicly held patents among all industries.

The University of California and U.S. Department of Agriculture are the two largest patent holders, with UC having 1.7 percent of public agricultural biotechnology patents and USDA holding 1.2 percent.

Meanwhile, the private sector holds 74 percent of ag biotech patents, with 40 percent of those patents owned by five large corporations: Monsanto Co., DuPont, Syngenta AG, Bayer AG and Dow Chemical Co. Start-ups, small companies and private inventors own a large block (34 percent) of the patents.

A relatively small number of patents -- just 2.8 percent -- were jointly invented by collaborating researchers from private and public organizations.

Types of technologies patented

The study found that the public and private sectors have specialized in patenting certain types of technologies within ag biotech and now have quite different portfolios of intellectual property.

Many of the fundamental methods for transferring genes into plant cells, including the use of Agrobacterium, were invented in the public sector, but the rights to those technologies have, to a large extent, been licensed by private companies.

The private sector has concentrated its patenting on application-based technologies for established product lines, such as those that involve certain industrial enzymes and the insecticidal Bt toxin genes.

The public sector, on the other hand, has focused more on patenting research discoveries related to plant developmental processes, such as flowering and disease and stress resistance.

The researchers predict that the private and public sectors will continue to specialize in these same areas.

Suggestions for the future

Because public intellectual property rights are so fragmented in ag biotechnology, the researchers recommend that these public institutions share public-sector data and pool patents to have access to the technologies needed to develop new genetically modified crop varieties.

They point to the recently established Public-Sector Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA) as one example of a patent clearinghouse that can equip public institutions to collaboratively proceed with research and development efforts in agricultural biotechnology. More information about PIPRA is available at http://www.pipra.org/. An article describing this new initiative appeared in the July 11, 2003, issue of the journal Science.

Collaborating with Bennett and Graff on this most recent study were Susan Cullen of MicroPatent LLC; David Zilberman, professor of agricultural economics at UC Berkeley; and Kent Bradford, professor and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis.

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