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I am a third-year PhD candidate working on cultivated meat. In my research, I have developed a new and original approach to making cultivated meat that has the potential of being highly scalable and help reach economic parity, more than most other known methods that companies are working on. 

My supervisor has left it up to me to decide whether to patent this method or not. I have half-based beliefs that patenting would be counter-productive in helping cultivated meat reach the market sooner, but I acknowledge that I am not knowledgeable enough in IP law/structures to really know. 

If I do decide to patent the method, the patent will mostly belong to and be written by the Tech Transfer office at my university, which is of course for profit. I am not sure I trust them to consider my wish to make a fairly non-limiting patent. The usual course of this kind of thing is then for the tech transfer office to open a private startup to further develop the method. In any case, I intend to publish the method in a scientific journal. If we patent it, then it would be published after filing.

What would be best for the field as a whole - a scenario where scientists patent their findings and then publish them, or where they just publish everything open source? Given that most scientists do patent and keep everything secret within companies, what would be best to do in my position?




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My half baked view would be that you should try to raise philanthropic funding to scale the technology and keep it open source, but if you can’t then you should patent it to enable you to raise private capital to scale it?

I would recommend patenting, but then committing to donate part of the profits. That has been my strategy.

Congrats on having invented something exciting!

Usually, the best way to get innovative new technology into the hands of beneficiaries quickly is to get a for-profit company to invest with a promise of making money. This can happen via licensing a patent to an existing manufacturer, or creating a whole startup company and raising venture capital, etc.

One of the things such investors want to see is a 'moat': something that this company can do that no other company can easily copy. A patent/exclusive license is a good way to create a moat.

There are some domains like software where simply publishing 'open source' ideas causes those ideas to get used, but for most domains including manufacturing, my default expectation is that new tech is not used unless someone can make money off it. Pharma is a great example - there are tons of vaccines and niche treatments that we don't have manufacturing for, even though we know how, because nobody can make enough money doing it.

I'd be really interested to hear whether you are considering seeing this idea through yourself? It sounds like you're doing a Ph.D; but if you would consider dropping out to work on this as a startup, then I think doing so would be one of the best ways to maximize this idea's chances for success. (In large part because your brain probably contains tons of highly relevant info for making this product work at scale!)

You wrote: "most scientists do patent and keep everything secret within companies" -- but I wonder if this indicates confusion, since usually patents don't keep things secret, they are published. Patents just allow their owner a legal monopoly on technology for a limited time.

Can you get introduced to any food-manufacturing people (ideally folks at bigger companies, in charge of finding + investing in new food products), who you can talk to about your idea, even just to get advice? Or, founders of similar food tech companies who came up with a good idea and had to decide whether to patent it?

Your Tech Transfer office is a member of AUTM.  AUTM encourages licenses that include altruistic clauses.  For example, the license could waive royalties for sales in third world countries when the licensee is selling at cost.

  Such a deal allows the licensee to make a profit on first world sales to recover development costs and also recognize the altruistic value.  Most inventions require development money and if open sourced they die from lack of funding.

I forwarded your question to an EA-aligned Stanford Law School professor who has worked in the startup space. Here is what he said (tl;dr he thinks you should patent it):

[A] patent & startup is an excellent way to protect & scale the technology. If the tech is in the public domain, it might actually deter a larger company from developing/using it because they'll fear a competitor will use the tech and undercut their price. 

The best path would likely be to patent it and then either license it to a large company or spin out a startup. If the PhD is a "scientist" type (and has no desire to be a businessperson / operator) then she might need to find co-founders to assist.

I'd be happy to pass along his contact info via DM if you want to discuss further (he is happy to chat with you). Congrats on the cool tech!

I am not super certain but I would strongly advise to patent it. Here is my thinking:

  • You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. Patenting it now will give you options. You should, I hope, be able to release the patent later. Not patenting it now means you might not be able to patent later. You get a lot of option value from patenting now.
  • Not sure how true the story is, but apparently GM bought some EV patent or company and shelved it as it was seen as a threat to their ICE vehicles. I can imagine well the meat industry pulling something similar with alternative proteins. I think and hope patenting the tech gives you some protection against a scenario like this.
  • If you want to reach scale, you want to tap into private capital. Investors are much more likely to invest in helping you scale if you have patent protection. Sure, many investors will get rich and buy fancy cars if you reach scale, but you will also potentially do a lot more good than those bads. If you are really lucky, you can choose value aligned investors who might themselves donate philanthropically so minimizing the downside from going down the private path. I lean pretty far away from the profit motive myself, but it has been mind blowing in renewable energy to witness what private capital can do in scaling products.

This is a tough question, and I don't really know the first thing about patents, so you probably should not listen to me.

My not very meditated first instinct is that one would set up a licensing scheme so that you commit to granting a use license to any manufacturer in exchange for a fee, preferrably as a portion of the revenue to incentivize experimentation from entrepreneurs.

Of course, this might dissuade the Tech Transfer office or other entrepreneurs from investing in a start-up if they won't be guaranteed exclusive use.

I suppose that it would be relevant to investigate how succesful the Tech Transfer office has been in launching startups in the past, what types of permissive licenses they would be amenable to, and whether you know some other entrepreneurs or accelerators who would be keen to commercialize the idea (and what types of licenses they would consider working with).

In any case, good luck with the effort - this could be a very exciting opportunity!

If you don't patent an invention, someone else can instead. So you should definitely get it patented, if only to put a very open license on it.

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I know the author personally, and I want to signal that Michelle is genuinely interested in doing good, that the proposed technology does seem highly promising, and that an informed take on this question would help her make a better decision. 

Thanks for anyone experienced with the subject matter who is willing to help here!

Thank you for asking.

If you don't patent, how high is the risk that someone else will try to patent your method and patent troll over it? 

This has historically been the reason that (non-patent troll) software tech companies in the past have claimed for patenting; I don't have a good sense of how common that is.

What about filing a patent and then releasing it?

That would be the best option, but I'm afraid the tech transfer office at the university, who will be the ones doing the filing, has no incentive to release a patent. Their whole goal is profit.

Are you under a contractual obligation to go through the tech transfer office? Could you in theory patent it on your own, with the help of an independent attorney?

In theory, publishing X and patenting X are both equally valid ways to prevent other people from patenting X. Does it not work that way in practice?

Could be wrong, but I had the impression that software companies have historically amassed patents NOT because patenting X is the best way to prevent another company from patenting the exact same thing X or things very similar to X, but rather because “the best defense is a good offense”, and if I have a dubious software patent on X and you have a dubious software patent on Y then we can have a balance of terror so that neither wants to sue the other. (That wouldn’t help defend Microsoft against patent trolls but would help defend Microsoft against Oracle etc.)

Possibly related? “Technical Disclosure Commons”, IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin, Defensive Publication.


That is exactly my worry with just publishing it. As I understand it, anyone can make a small tweak and patent the whole thing in a way that limits the technology from being used widely. 

If you publish it, a third party could make a small tweak and apply for a patent. If you patent it, a third party could make a small tweak and apply for a patent. What do you see as the difference? Or sorry if I’m misunderstanding the rules.

I don’t have an answer, but would suggest you talk to the folks at the Good Food Institute if you haven’t already — they might have advice, or at the very least be able to point you towards other people you could ask about this.

Hey Sahkeel,

I actually work part-time for GFI. I have spoken to several of the Scitech folks, and surprisingly there is no set strategy for these cases. There seems to be a gradual change over time from strongly supporting open-source science to more nuanced 'maybe patent but in a non-limiting way'.

That's interesting to hear. What's the reasoning for the non-limiting patent being preferable over the pure open-science approach? 

What I understand is that they now believe filing a non-limiting or free license patent is preferable, as otherwise anyone can make a small tweak in the published method and patent it for profit.

The thing is I would love to patent and give it license-free, but I'm afraid I don't have the power to make that decision, as the tech transfer office will do the filing and the ownership will be mostly the university's.

I don't know how any of this works, but is it a possibility for you to tell the Tech Transfer office that you will let them file the patent conditionally on it being free-license/non-limiting, otherwise you will publish it open-source? In line with TeddyW's response — it sounds like licensing with "altruistic clauses" is something that the Tech Transfer office would be opposed to, given that they are for-profit; but maybe you have some leverage because presumably they have some incentive to file for the patent rather than it being fully open-source..?

Oh man, tough situation, and also congrats and this sounds awesome and admiration that you're thinking about this question.

As other commenters, I don't know the first thing about patents. Have you talked to a lawyer, including to figure out whether you can patent in a way that doesn't involve the Tech Transfer office (so much)?

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