Biotech Market Transactions
First of all, it is important to realize that the traditional model where the seed seller offers a variety or hybrid with a set of fixed traits “locked into” a germplasm is obsolete. Nowadays, a biotech firm may isolate, sequence, redesign, and make a gene proprietary only to offer it to a number of simultaneous markets (e.g. healthcare, agbio, nutraceuticals, etc.) and applications. This means that the firm selling plant varieties to farmers does not necessarily have to be the same company that owns the pest tolerant trait in that very same variety nor does the company have to rely on a single source of income. Innovations in the seed germplasms therefore often create a number of transactions that all need to be controlled in some way for value to be maintained.
This value, however, will not automatically increase as customers or collaborators’ freedom is restricted, which seems to be how many companies measure the value of their intellectual property in many cases. As an example 26 leading corn insect scientists in the US recently submitted a statement to the EPA regarding how unreasonable restrictions in technology agreements hinder their research. Patent Baristas discusses the issue and links to Monsanto’s Technology/Stewardship Agreement (and Technology Use Guide) as an example, in an interesting recent blog post.
Access as Business Model
Control can instead be used as a gatekeeper to enable access rather than restrict it. Allowing farmers to save and replant seed is an example of a light form of this “enabling” thinking in contrast to the “protect and fend off” thinking. The right to save seed varies among countries and between plant species (according to regulation, e.g. UPOV directives) but the rule, in general, is that farmers should pay a reduced royalty fee if seed is saved and re-sowed the next season (with some prohibitions, such as brown-bagging: here & here). It is quite fascinating that despite the options for farm-saved seed (FSS) are in many regards rather limited, FSS actually still has created intermediate markets in Europe where organizations collect royalties from farmers for FSS to the seed companies, e.g. SVUF. It seems a whole range of new business models would be possible if access was made the focal point in the strategies of some of these companies. It is therefore particularly interesting when access is offered openly to technology such as when the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in December released a complete draft of the soybean (Glycine max) genetic code freely to the research community.
Open vs. Free
I would like to emphasize that my viewpoint is certainly not that companies should offer their services without making a profit or even less. What I am suggesting is that business owners and developers should rethink how their value propositions are constructed, to create more value for their value recipients, which could mean that they could make even more profit but from multiple revenue streams. As pointed out above, a gene technology company does usually not have to rely solely on one particular product for revenue, but can often diversify by offering the technology in many simultaneous markets. The concept of how value recipients does not necessarily have to be the restricted to be the same as a company’s current customers is eloquently discussed more in-depth by Anders in tbmdb.com this week. Genetic engineering and software programming have many structural elements in common, so if profitable in-direct business models can be generated from open initiatives in software (e.g. IBM, second life, Linux Desktop business models, etc.) wouldn’t that mean that openness, and access, also could be made profitable in biotech?