A patented discovery can make a lot of money, not just for Wageningen UR, but also for individual researchers. Yet not very many patents are taken out. Are we wasting valuable opportunities? Or is it just that science and business make uneasy bedfellows?
Patents are supposed to stimulate innovation and investment. If you succeed in getting a patent you have a monopoly on your invention for 20 years. That is plenty of time for recouping your investments. Without that protection, the thinking goes, a competitor can ride on your achievements by producing a cheap imitation of your product straightaway. And this makes it unprofitable to take risks. On paper everyone benefits from a patent: companies can safely invest, researchers have a goose with golden eggs, and the public gets a constant stream of smart new products.
In order to stimulate applications for patents, Wageningen UR started rewarding the inventers themselves from 2008. They receive one sixth of profits up to 1.5 million euros, one sixth goes to the chair group and the rest goes to the science group. But in spite of all the incentives, there is not exactly a stampede to take out Wageningen patents. In 2011 DLO's patents raised three million euros gross. The income from Wageningen University patents was negligible. Is Wageningen wasting golden opportunities here?
Let us start by making it clear that applying for a patent is not as simple as is often believed. To qualify for a patent, an idea has to meet an array of strict criteria. 'The main one is the novelty criterion,' says Paul van Helvert, manager of intellectual property for Wageningen UR. A discovery has to be absolutely new and you are not even allowed to have published it. In order to verify its newness, Van Helvert trawls through both the scientific and the patent literature. If he finds nothing, that is still no guarantee. 'It is almost impossible to exhaust the possibilities with your own search. For patents, everything counts that has ever been published in any language and anywhere in the world.' So the patent authority might find a comparable idea somewhere and your application can be binned.
A second criterion for a patent is that the idea should be of commercial interest. 'Applying for a patent is an expensive hobby,' says Van Helvert. 'It can easily cost 10,000 euros.' And in the years that follow, the bill mounts up further. You have to claim your patent in every country individually, to the tune of 5 to 10 thousand euros per country. You also pay an annual fee for maintaining your patent. Over the whole period the bill rises to somewhere between 150,000 and a million euros. And if you are unlucky, there will be legal costs on top of that because someone challenges your patent. Meanwhile, there is very little guarantee of making a profit. You first have to invest in turning the idea into a lucrative product - all too often in vain. Then you face all sorts of expensive procedures necessary to protect your patent from infringement. This currently happens 'a few times a year,' says Van Helvert. So you need to weigh up the situation constantly. If a patent no longer seems worthwhile you should pull out the plug as fast as possible.
Means or end
An additional factor is that Wageningen researchers often do not really see themselves as entrepreneurs. 'You shouldn't mix commerce with your public duty,' says Cees Buisman, professor of Biological Recycling Technology. 'I haven't seen much good come out of that. Our standard practice is that a patent is quickly transferred to a company. We then agree on a "success fee" of between 0.1 and 1 percent of the turnover the company gets out of the patent.' Buisman has recently become personally involved in a spin-off. But up to now he just sees it as a complication. 'It takes you too much time and carries too much personal financial risk. I don't understand how those professors at the University of Twente do it, with four companies at the same time.' Aart van Amerongen, DLO-researcher in Biomolecular Sensing and Diagnostics, has no enterpreneurial ambitions either. 'I am a born researcher,' he says. 'In a business you focus on just one thing. You have to standardize it, apply and trial it over and over again, and get it on the market as fast as you can. I know myself: I would get bored.'
Wageningen UR holds a total of about 200 patents, most of them new and waiting for a purchaser or a license holder. On average, 25 new patents are added every year. An unknown but much larger number are never registered but go straight to companies.
Wageningen researchers see patents primarily as a means of doing business with the business world. Companies only want to invest in knowledge that is protected, says Ruud Weusthuis, associate professor at Biobased Commodity Chemicals and DLO researcher at Food and Biobased Research. 'If you don't patent but just publish directly, you lose options for applying your discovery in practice.' Cees Buisman confirms this. His financiers want their funding matched with private funding so he always does his research in collaboration with companies. 'And they only collaborate if you have protected the knowledge.'
In this way, the research groups say they optimize the benefits from their discoveries, albeit by a roundabout route. Weusthuis: 'The patent itself is not valuable, but it creates possibilities for attracting new business.' Companies buy patents or a license to use them. With this money you can appoint new PhD researchers, for example.
Knowledge is public
Besides practical difficulties, applications for patents at universities also raise ethical objections. 'Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think it is appropriate,' says Henk van den Belt, professor of Applied Philosophy. Knowledge is public, certainly at a university that is funded from tax revenues. Van den Belt thinks scientists should conduct their work more along the lines laid down by sociologist Merton, who says a scientific discovery is not the property of the discoverer but of society. The scientist only gets the credit for it. Van den Belt is afraid that the emphasis on patents will end up inhibiting innovation. A monopoly puts the brakes on research and makes companies lazy. 'The business world seems to be addicted to exclusivity: a withdrawal treatment wouldn't be a bad idea.'
Van den Belt knows only too well that his views have not been the prevailing ones since 1980. That was the year in which an American law ensured that patents taken out by universities were no longer the property of the government but of the universities and the researchers. This soon turned universities in America into entrepreneurs - and the Netherlands followed suit later. This trend has speeded up in recent years because of the Dutch government's demand that more research funding should come from the private sector. With the government's encouragement, universities try to find new ways of earning money from this sector, and one of these is through patents. So Buisman disagrees with Van den Belt: 'If a patent is paid for with Dutch tax revenues, the Dutch should take a strategic view of where the profits go: through a Dutch company or knowledge institution.' In Buisman's view, the valorization of knowledge is strategically important to the Netherlands and can be achieved through the newly designated top sectors.
But the patent world remains difficult territory, as all those involved know well. Technical disagreements about patents can get way out of hand. Van Amerongen has first-hand experience of this. 'In 1987 we got a patent on our nano particles in Europe. It took until 1997 before it was recognized in the US and Canada.' There was nothing wrong with the patent, but the American examiners kept on rejecting the applications in the hope of stopping it. Van Amerongen: 'You have to be very well prepared for defending your patent - financially, especially. Big companies have a lot of good patent experts and money. You'll always be the underdog in a court case. You'll lose even if you are in the right.'
Wageningen patent: Electricity from urine
'We developed a technique for using energy-producing bacteria to extract ammonia from urine,' explains Cees Buisman, professor of Biological Recycling Technology. 'To date, ammonia is extracted by breaking it down, isolating it and then reforming it. This process costs a lot of money and energy. Until our patent no method has been found for extracting it more cheaply. Our process not only does that but it can even generate energy. I think that's great, myself.'
Wageningen patent: Nano particles from carbon
'We have had a patent on nano microspheres made of carbon since 1897,' explains Aart van Amerongen, DLO researcher in Biomolecular Sensing and Diagnostics. 'We got this idea because we were not allowed to use the gold and silver microspheres used by Organon in pregnancy tests. Our microspheres emit a black signal if the test detects something. We use them in a range of tests, for example for bacteria or aeroallergens such as the baker's yeast amylase that floats around in bakeries.'
Wageningen patent: Fungus-resistant potatoes
'We have applied for a patent for a gene that makes potatoes resistant to the potato disease,' says Jack Vossen, DLO researcher at PRI Biodiversity and Breeding. 'We found the gene when we were screening wild potatoes of the Solanum chacoemse species. The protein involved recognizes the Phytophtora pathogen and sets off a strong resistance response. Infected cells die immediately in order to preserve the rest of the plant.'
Patents in the Netherlands
Dutch knowledge institutions are relatively modest in their applications for patents, a survey by the Dutch patent centre reveals. Leading the field in the Netherlands is the Technical University of Delft, with 157 patents between 2003 and 2007. In the same period, Wageningen University applied for 27 patents, and Plant Research International 37. Wetsus and TIFN, two institutes which Wageningen researchers work at or with, applied for 19 and 16 patents respectively. These figures pale in comparison with those of Dutch multinationals. Shell, DSM and Unilever all applied for well over 1000 patents. But the real frontrunner is Philips, which obtained more than 10,000 patents in those five years.