In his recent ‘Tomorrow’s World’ speech at the Policy Exchange, the Right Honorable David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science  sets out a vision for how the UK could become a world leader in eight future technologies (building on the Chancellor’s speech at the Royal Society in November). These technologies will receive an extra £600m of funding as announced in last year’s Autumn Statement.

This week I attended a workshop on synthetic biology (one of the eight technologies set out by the Minister – receiving £88m) at Imperial College, under the auspices of the US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology, and Law.

The 20 or so participants, drawn from academia, industry, policy and the legal community were tasked with assessing the demand for international discussion on ownership and sharing issues that may impede research and prospects for commercialisation. For example, the participants discussed if existing patent regimes are fit for purpose and how/if to respond to options for achieving global standards (for example in data exchange, units of measurement and registering parts and devices).

Naturally differences between patent systems (e.g. in the US, UK/EU and China), result in mixed views. For example the UK and EU systems offer academic exclusions from patent infringement that are not available under US jurisdiction. But some UK researchers still feel strongly that existing patent regimes impose major barriers to achieving the commercialisation and economic growth potential that synthetic biology offers.

Whether these barriers are new and specific to synthetic biology also raises mixed views. On the one hand, some argue the design principles of synthetic biology leave researchers particularly prone to a perfect storm of excessive costs through patent stacking, unintentional infringement and patent hold-up (see discussion on ownership and sharing available here for more on this). On the other hand, others argue that the issues are not new; yes the system(s) may be imperfect, but they are far from completely broken, and may in fact offer some advantages…

It is true that synthetic biology is a still an emerging field and there are few examples of case law to help us assess if fears are real or imagined. But research is also moving very fast and expectations for commercialisation are growing. In the meantime, we can expect to go through a few growing pains as research progresses through to adolescence (if not maturation) and the debates should continue to bring in a wide range of expertise and perspectives.