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Battle of Wisdom: CRISPR-CAS9

in Sci-IP/SciBiz/SciWorld by
Editor’s Note: Gene editing for a better (or worse) is coming to a store near you. Some of you may have followed the ongoing patent war on the ownership of CRISPR-Cas9 technology between University of California (Berkeley) and Broad Institute (MIT-Harvard). But there could be many who are wondering what is the fuss all about? At the Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs we might still continue the debate about CSG’s usefulness to biologists vs non-biologists, but as inventors we are always in unison about perfecting the art of claiming ownership. #ClubSciWri is always attempting to listen and respond to your expectations and we are pleased to present the “Battle of Wisdom:CRISPR-Cas9” from Dileep Vengasseri. Dileep has nicely deciphered the meshwork underlying this matrix of claims to the CRISPR invention. We hope this story helps make sure that the next big thing from your gray matter secures your rightful ownership to the intellectual property.- Abhinav Dey

My dear friend, this 60 minutes of my time and 1597 words are for you! As you rightly said, maybe we should discuss our opinion(s) in public at least for educating others on what we have learned during the due course of our time.

Disclaimer: All what is written/expressed here are my personal opinions, and are not to be construed in any manner as a reflection/opinion of the firm that I am associated with. My words are solely my words! I will try to be as generic as possible to ensure there is absolutely no conflicts of any interest. This is purely a personal blog, written within the constitutional freedom that my Country has offered me when I was born here.

Many great battles are won not in the battle fileds, but in the minds of the battle leaders. What we read, saw, and talked about were the after-effects of those battles won or lost inside those great minds. In the great epic Mahabharata, Arjuna was about to lose Kurukshetra battle even before it was fought. But, there was a Krishna to save him from that humiliation. Many may not be as lucky as Arjuna was.

Before I begin, with all due respect, let me remind all of us one trivia very clear. US is not the “World” … it is just one of the many countries [a privileged one, indeed] of this world.  A larger population residing outside that privileged country, do not play a “World Cup” between their states or clubs. They don’t re-spell a word to make it look like they have invented it. For them, the metal “Al” is still aluminium and not aluminum.

We, living at the periphery of the world of modern(?) science, have got enough fuel from CRISPR-Cas, the game-changing method of gene editing, to satisfy our ego of being a part of a ‘privileged community’ who understands (?) the words like ‘gene editing’ and ‘CRISPR-Cas’.  For all such ‘privileged souls’, the “IP Battle of CRISPR-Cas” is more than just another battle. Let me call it a “Battle of Wisdom”.

But, was this battle worth fighting?

Let me begin with disecting this IP battle to four main sections: (1) Technology (2) The Battle Field (3) The Win and (4) The Strategy. May be, in future, I can complete this article with “Lessons Learnt”.

  1. Technology: At least from what is publically available, we know that Doudna/Charpentier’s team made that beautiful gene editng system work in-vitro in prokaryotic cells, in a neater, simpler manner than what it was in the nature itself. Instead of using a 3-component system including tracrRNA, crRNA and Cas9, her team beautifully designed a 2-component system, including a key synthetic, single guided RNA (sgRNA), that effectively performed site specific genome editing along with Cas9 (It is interesting to note that in-vitro 3-component system is also IP protected!). What was the big deal? The big deal was its simplicity, efficiency, and marketability. It was not that gene editing methodologies never existed before… however, now the World has access to an elegant gene editing system that is much more easy to perform (no more protein engineering!) & predictable. We also know that Feng Zhang (don’t forget George Church’s back-to-back publication in Science along with Feng Zhang) made it work in the eukaryotic system.
  2. The Battle Field: No one (at least the majority of money makers) wants a gene editing system that works only in prokaryotic systems. So, the “Battle of Wisdom” eventually boiled down to the IP on gene editing in eukaryotic system with CRISPR-Cas. Duodna filed a US patent application (remember, US is not the World, more so when it comes to IP protection) first and Feng Zhang got the first granted patent in US (note that the USPTO could have  provoked an interference at that time itself, but they didn’t!). Feng Zhang’s patent ‘claims’ to ‘cover’ eukaryotic CRISPR/Cas gene editing system (no comments on its “claims” and/or its “coverage” as the battle is still on…at least let the battle be fought under the belief that the land that is going to be conquered is still fertile!).  Duodna had anyway made it easier for Feng Zhang to get his patent granted by ‘boasting about’ her team’s achievement in multiple forums and explaning ‘how difficult it is/was to make it work in a eukaryotic system’.   Alas! enough of such wisdom on eukaryotic system was passed on to that Patent Attorney who filed her provisional applications, at least before the one on 19th October 2012 that is prior to the Feng Zhang’s priority date of 12th December 2012. Now, the battle of wisdom (what we call as “Interference Proceedings”) is to establish who invented (i.e., conceived and/or reduced-to-practice) the “eukaryotic CRISPR-Cas” first. Duodna will be fighting to make a point that porting CRISPR to  eukaryotic system is just a non-inventive aspect. Feng Zhang is going to fight back at least on the ground that if it is that obvious why did it then take Doudna a good 6-9 months to achieve the same.   I refrain from making any comments on how long or short is 6-9 months in a field like Molecular Biology. I know that my dear friend, who forced me (as usual) to write this long article, has wandered in the wilderness of IISc campus behind an elusive protein for a good 6 years :-)). And, I must admit that I have made the entire story of this Battle of Wisdom to a deeply  abridged version as the facts of this case are much more than what this layman article can handle. But, I believe that this much background is good enough to make my “teaching moments” convincing.
  3. The Win: Does it matter who wins this battle? Of course, YES! All battles are known after the leader who has won it (Aravind Kejriwal and Hilary Clinton are no where near their counterparts, as of today). Generally, the winner get the privilege to write the history that we all can read and study. But, is this Battle of Wisdom the same as any other great battles fought, lost and won? No. What is required to win this battle? It is required to show that who has invented the “eukaryotic CRISPR-Cas” first; it is required to show what is inventive/not inventive in this field; and it is required to show what constitutes an adequate written description/enablement in this field so that the “public disclosure function” (spirit and letter of any patenting system in the world) of the patenting sytsem is intact.  But, as with any other battle, only one person can be the winner. But, what will they both win or lose? The loser will any way have a deep wound in ego that may take years to heal. But, will he/she lose everything? Need not be. It depends on what other IP portfolio or picket-fencing that he/she has done around this gene editing tool. For example, a good claim on the synthetic guide RNA, a good IP portoflio on a better Cas9 proteins,  a better method for transfecting the cell, or an alternative to Cas9 itself… all these can make or break a commercial deal.  Is the winner going to get everything? Need not be.  During this entire process, it might open a pandora box and a myriad of avenues to potentially invalidate the patent claims that the winner can take home, to limit its claim scope, to limit its application coverage etc.
  4. Strategy: Isn’t it important for everyone in the field of IP to realize that most often a “hand shake” may do more good than “a fight”.  Before taking the army to a battle, it is important to know if raisng a white flag will be more beneficial than a gruelling battle. It is important to understand for what one is fighting a battle.   Does anyone fight for satisfying an ego or to make a point?  It is imporant to  understand that in a patent battle field, a wiser does not fight from their heart, but from their mind!. It is  important for each of the fighting members to know “What will happen if we do not fight, but rather collaborate?”.  Both Doudna/Charpentier and Feng Zhang could have been still partners in Editas, and they could have ruled the field.  When you fight in public, you expose yourself…you expose more than what you wanted to. And, what you have exposed can kill you even if you win YOUR fight.

Three more points to ponder:

  1. IP protection of PCR technology made Roche the king of DNA amplificaiton for quite sometime. Why? It is true that PCR was a technology that literally transformed the world of Biotechnology. But, was the IP protection on PCR probes for important pathogens less important? Were Taqman probes for real time PCR less important? Were the chips that made thermal cycling easier less important? No. All of them “together” made PCR a “cult” technology. That’s what a strategy means.
  2. IP protection in the field of ESC took Thompson and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to the center of the scientific world. Many IP/Tech Transfer cells in the Universities across the world wanted to be like WARF. As far I know, WARF gave its rights for free to any academic instituties, but made any industry pay for the same. Great! What were the other things that were needed to sustain and progress that technology ? An environment that morally support ESC research, a completely synthetic media to grow ESC, a culture that is devoid of mouse fibroblasts … all these were essential for taking ESC to reach its maximum potential. In modern day science, it is unlikely that we will see a winner of a single battle emerging as the “real winner”. A real winner is going to be the one who knows the game and strategize accordingly.
  3. US is not the “World”, and IP rights are jurisdictional. So, make yourself open to strategize for the real world!

Another Disclaimer: While starting my blog in WordPress, I had promised that I will not proof-read what I have written. In the past, many times, I had become a victim of my perfectionism and my writings had never seen the light. So, please pardon any typographical, grammatical, or otherwise errors. I hope factual errors are not there. Please let me know if you find any errors so that I can correct the same.

Authored by


Dr Dileep Vangasseri, PhD (Indian Institute of Science, IISc); Post-Doctoral research, University of Pittsburgh; Senior IP Professional, John F. Welch Technology Center, GE India Technology Center Pvt. Ltd., GE Global Research, Bangalore, India). Dileep has over ten years of in-house IP experience in Life Sciences, Healthcare and Medical Diagnostics industry after eight years of academic research experience in Bio-Organic Chemistry, Gene Therapy and Cancer Immunotherapy. He is well versed in all facets of patent analytics, techno-competitive intelligence, technology forecasting and business development.

This blog was originally posted here on December 7 (2016).

Featured image source: Pixabay

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This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The different hats of technology transfer officers

in Entrepreneurship/Sci-IP by


With the establishment of Bayh Dole Act in 1983, US universities started establishing “Technology Transfer Offices”, whose main job was to evaluate inventions coming out of their laboratories. This helped universities to protect their intellectual property (IP) and license it out to startups or established companies. Technology transfer begins as soon as inventors disclose their technology to technology transfer offices. A technology transfer officer then wears different hats- an inventor’s, an attorney’s, an entrepreneur’s, an industrialist’s or a consumer’s to weigh various aspects of the technology before he/she consents to file a patent. As simple as it sounds, it requires a sound knowledge of the science involved and the rules and laws of patent prosecution. It also requires the business acumen needed to license a technology after filing a patent. Let us go through these steps one by one:

Determining prior art: The first and the most important hat worn by a technology manager is that of a patent agent. He/she asks the most important questions on the disclosed technology that a patent office will also ask: Does the technology have “utility” in the real world? Is the technology “novel”? Given all the previous knowledge or literature in the field, is the technology described by the inventor “obvious”? A patent will be granted by a patent office only if the answer to the first two questions is affirmative, and the answer to the third question is negative. Based on literature and patent database searches for the disclosed technology and judgment from experience, technology transfer officers decide whether to proceed forward with the technology and file a patent.

Freedom to operate (FTO): Wearing an attorney’s hat, the tech transfer officer asks another crucial question: Assuming that a patent is issued for the disclosed technology, can the owner or licensee of the patent practice the invention without infringing upon other patents? In other words, how much “freedom to operate” does the patent actually confer to its inventor/owner/licensee when compared with other patents that have been granted in the same area. A patent that cannot be practiced is as good as not having the patent. It is like investing in a dead technology. No business will buy or license out the technology. Patent prosecution being a very expensive process, a technology transfer officer evaluates the FTO very carefully to decide whether or not to invest university’s money to protect the technology. In my future blog, I will discuss FTO in detail.

Market: The next hat that a technology transfer officer wears is that of a marketing analyst. A tech transfer officer is not only involved in protecting the IP but is also instrumental in supporting the development of the technology. The whole idea of protecting the technology is to incentivize the companies to license out the technology from the university to make it useful to the society. To attract industries to invest in the technology many important questions are asked in advance: 1. What is the current market for the technology? 2. What is the market landscape (what other companies are involved in the technology space?) 3. If the technology enters the market, how much market penetrance will it get? In other words, will the industry see the return of investment if they license the technology from the university? Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of money and product development. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in

Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of capital and time investment. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in USA. A technology that requires a long incubation time will eat up the patent term (number of years of the patent rights). Losing the patent term means losing the competitive advantage. Therefore, the technology transfer officer needs to ascertain that there will be sufficient patent term remaining for the company, to recover its invested dollars and generate a considerable return of investment on the product.

Tradeoff analysis: One of the primary objectives of technology transfer offices, as I have already mentioned, is to see the university technology get developed into a product that is directly useful to the society. Therefore, the tech transfer officer evaluates pipeline products of companies, their business and development plans, their market share and capital as well as their past performance in developing the licensed technologies. The question whether the technology is suitable for a startup or an established companies is very crucial. A startup will have a vested interest in developing a technology. Therefore, it will have a focused approach towards the development of the product. In the case of established companies, they will have several products in their pipelines. Therefore, their focus, and hence, the development plan my change with changing priorities that is heavily shaped by the market. At the same time, startups are risky, and their product development pipelines are not as well charted out as an established enterprise. Therefore, an important challenge for tech transfer officers is to do a tradeoff analysis to narrow down the companies that will provide the best opportunity for the technology to get developed into a viable product.

Technology valuation: This is perhaps the most difficult part of the technology transfer process in the universities for which there are no easy answers. In general, the technology transfer officers rely on past deals (also known as comparable deals) for similar technologies and market analysis to come up with a value. There are complex quantitative ways to estimate the cost of the product 5-10 years from the present day for a thorough evaluation. One can easily imagine the difficulty in predicting the market a decade in advance. The two most important aspects of valuation are license issue fee and royalty. The latter is most important for universities, as it is their return of investment for their innovation. It is through royalties that universities can pump back money into the basic research and infrastructure. They can also incentivize inventors by giving them a part of the royalty.

Salesman: A tech transfer officer also needs to be an excellent salesman. Like a prudent salesman the officer has to win the best possible deal (in terms of royalty from the sale of the technology (also known as consideration) and due diligence (DD) terms for the technology development) for the universities. This is the most challenging hat worn by a tech transfer officer. It starts when a company shows interest to license a technology for making, using and selling it as a product. The tug-of-war involved in coming to a perfect term for a licensing deal is a thesis on its own. It will be sufficient to stress that this step requires the wizardry of a technology transfer officer to win a profitable deal for the university to support everything that a tech transfer office stands for. During the negotiation process, the officer always makes sure that the interest of the university and its IP is given the supreme interest. Once, the negotiation is done, the deal is formalized in a license agreement and is then bound by the law of the state.

Police Officer: Following license agreements, tech transfer officers monitor the strict DD terms. DD is very crucial for technology transfer officers, because it acts as an instrument to make sure that the technology gets developed in a timely manner. Breaching DD leads to termination of the license agreement.

The final goal is to see that the technology gets developed and is transferred to the masses for their consumption, thereby advancing the society through cutting-edge science and technology.

Ananda Ghosh

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