Aesop in the Lab

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January 26, 2006
OnTheCommons.org

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It says something about our times that the news reads increasingly like a fable – which is to say, folly so pure it becomes object lesson.  The latest example comes from Ames, Iowa, where a biotech start-up by the name of Phytodyne recently bit the dust.  The company was going to develop a way to speed up the genetic engineering of crops.  Typically the process takes six to eight years; Phytodyne was going to cut that by two.

This would be the “holy grail of the $30 billion crop seed industry,” as the Des Moines Register put it.  It could help “turn Iowa’s 23 million acres of cheap corn and soybeans – now used primarily for livestock feed – into a gold mine of food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals, supporters say.”  University administrators, the state’s governor, faculty at Iowa State University involved in the project, all were salivating.  The state actually committed $5 million in financial aid.

Is this starting to sound like Aesop?  That’s in fact how it played out.  It turned out that Phytodyne needed a technology that is owned by another biotech company, Sangamo Biosciences, which is based in Richmond, California.  Talks went on for over a year, but the two sides couldn’t agree on terms.  In the end, another company made a higher bid, and that was Phytodyne’s good night.

Not that the rest of us should shed tears. Phytodyne, after all, was itself deep into the patent game.  The company was built on patents that its founders had developed as researchers at Iowa State and that the university held.  An exclusive license to these patents was the source of the sugar plums that danced in everyone’s heads.  The company was undone by the very system it itself was trying to do.

It’s the grabby hand in the cookie jar, or something like that.  As university research generally goes down this path, the whole process is going to choke increasingly on its own greed.

This particular fable has a redemptive ending, however. Dan Voytas, the founder of Phytodyne, has returned to the labs at Iowa State.  He has a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the work he started there and then tried to privatize. This time, however, his discoveries will be available to all university researchers at a nominal fee.  “The goal is to get information into the public domain,” the Register reports.

If they all did that then science would zoom ahead.  Whether that’s necessarily a good thing in all cases – biotech for example – we’ll leave that one for another day.

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