On Rethinking IP

Global Reset Series / by James Moody /

Licensing patents for the developing world can help bring innovations in nutrition, medicine, and countless other fields to the people who need them the most.

In the Wollo highlands of northern Ethiopia, hunger and food insecurity are permanent features, as certain and regular as the droughts that rake the hills with unremitting frequency.

Large-scale humanitarian relief efforts, massive feeding centers, and heroic medical interventions have been deployed for decades to alleviate severe malnutrition and hunger in Wollo and other parts of Ethiopia, and have saved thousands. But many more thousands—especially children—have perished.

In 1996, a company called Nutriset developed a product called “Plumpy’nut”: a sachet containing an oil-based mixture of peanut butter, dried milk, sugar, and micronutrients that requires no refrigeration, does not need to be mixed with water, and has the same nutritional profile as F100. Plumpy’nut was a major breakthrough for treating severely malnourished children, but its creator, Andre Briénd, realized: “Developing Plumpy’nut was not enough on its own. It was like inventing a computer without the software.”

That vital “software” came in the form of a unique partnership between the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide and Dr. Steve Collins, director of the research agency Valid International. With Nutriset making Plumpy’nut available, Collins and Concern Worldwide were able to develop and implement a new approach to feeding malnourished children called “Community-based Therapeutic Care,” also known as “CTC.”

Collins and Concern piloted CTC in Ethiopia in 2000. The evidence gathered from the pilot—and from subsequent CTC programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, and Sudan—was persuasive. Data showed that the CTC programs reached over 70 percent of those in need: The old system of therapeutic feeding centers, the gold-standard in the 1990s, had never been able to reach more than 10 percent.

In 2007, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition endorsed this CTC approach as international best practice.

Currently, Nutriset allows NGOs, as well as a network of several manufacturers under Nutriset franchise, to produce ready-to-use therapeutic foods with properties similar to Plumpy’nut. With the aim of increasing local production, Nutriset grants patent licenses to NGOs with proven track records and offices in developing countries.

More solutions like this are close at hand. Decades of research by corporations, universities, and private laboratories have laid a strong foundation for humanitarian groups to build on. The same technology that gets ice cream from factory to consumer in the developed world could be applied to delivery of temperature-sensitive vaccines and drugs in poor nations. The genetic engineering behind high-yield seeds can give us drought-resistant grains for subsistence farmers. Medical advances in HIV treatment in the United States are readily transferrable to low-cost treatments in places like Malawi.

But here’s the rub: Many key technologies are covered by patents, because the people and companies that have invested in research and development have a reasonable expectation of profits.  Companies have been making valuable patents available for humanitarian uses for years, but quite often it has been an ad hoc effort requiring intensive legal work and expense for both NGOs and corporations.

There is a solution, however, and it is called the Global Responsibility License (GRL). The license is a project of the Young Global Leaders Group of the World Economic Forum working in concert with commercial companies, research organizations and IP development organizations such as Public Intellectual Property Rights for Agriculture (PIPRA).

The GRL makes it easier for patent holders to make a significant contribution to aiding vulnerable populations in the poorest countries because it is a modular license, created specifically for the use of IP for development purposes.

It aims to make it easier for patent holders to temporarily release their patents for humanitarian purposes. Corporations retain ownership of any research they’ve undertaken while giving NGOs the opportunity to improve the quality of life for the poorest.

The GRL will also serve as a catalyst for innovation in the developing world, where currently many patent holders may not see sufficient market opportunities for their existing intellectual property. Yet new applications for many technologies under patent could have an enormous impact on poverty. The GRL seeks to structure licenses so that the patent holder preserves the economic value of their IP and, at the same time, helps to solve some key challenges facing hungry and poor families globally. Over time, these new applications of IP may evolve into actual markets for products, as uses are proven and economic activity increases. At that point, the GRL lapses and companies can reap the benefits of an established product in a new market.

In 2009, the number of chronically hungry people in the world passed the 1 billion mark—nearly one-sixth of humanity. We need to develop new solutions. The GRL will not only create a powerful incentive to develop such technologies, but will speed their delivery into hands—and stomachs—of those who need them most.

James Moody is the executive director of development for the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization in Australia. Siobhan Walsh, executive director of Concern Worldwide US, and Sara Boettiger, managing director of PIPRA, contributed to this piece.

Originally published January 31, 2011

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