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Sunday, October 24, 2004Newsweek writes that Linux's success is making freely revealed innovation a hot idea again. After decades in which patents closed off innovation, open source has caught the attention of businesses because "it so violated accepted wisdom and so clearly worked," says Yochai Benkler, a Yale scholar. Giants like IBM and HP, and newcomers like Red Hat, have made lots of money on Linux-based services and equipment.Pharmaceuticals represent one new and surprising area where freely shared innovation is catching on. Most industry profits have been made from expensive patented drugs. But now the BioBricks project at MIT is trying to establish standardized tools and processes for research. That way, researchers from everywhere can contribute. Open innovation also makes sense in industries where patents aren't relevant—for example, finding new uses for existing drugs. Eric Von Hippel, MIT's head of innovation and entrepreneurship, is studying FDA applications since 1998 for these so-called off-label uses of patented drugs to see whether, as he suspects, they come mostly from independent researchers rather than the big drugmakers holding the original patents. If they do, it means open-source innovation is already well underway.Tropical Disease Initiative that could give graduate students, for instance, a chance to work on finding drugs to help fight the likes of malaria. Because discoveries wouldn't be patented, contracts could be awarded to the lowest bidder. Manufacturing prices could be kept down, too, because generic-drug makers could compete as soon as a drug was ready.
Plant genetics is another field showing the promise of open innovation. The basic tools for manipulating plant genes, and thereby modifying food, are protected by a thicket of patents largely controlled by multinationals, which means farmers in developing countries don't have access to the techniques. The BIOS Initiative, recently launched by Cambia, an Australian nonprofit, aims to make publicly available an alternative technology. One early aim has been to help farmers find a way to breed their own corn, so they don't need to buy expensive hybrid seeds each year. It's not yet clear just how far this kind of research can be democratized. But in many areas, the open-source option is becoming a serious one.
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