Open Business Models in Agriculture: Improving Access to Patented Plant Traits

As our world becomes increasingly inter-connected and transparent, open business models and open innovation programs are gaining importance — and this is a really exciting thing!

In this context, traditional intellectual property (IP) protections are viewed as a dilemma: on one hand, they encourage and enable innovation by providing incentives to invest in expensive and time-consuming research and development; on the other hand, too much of them, or over-zealous use of them, can restrict access to and reduce utilization of inventions.

The challenge we face is how to flip this dilemma and turn the question away from an “either-or” to an “and.”

How can we have both incentives for innovation AND more open access to innovation?

A new ethos regarding open IP use is emerging, especially in industries that touch on elementary human needs like health and food (and which would have considered such practices completely insane not even a decade ago).

Increasingly, and perhaps paradoxically, companies find that maintaining and defending a monopolistic use of IP cripples their ability to create value — especially value that goes beyond pure monetary returns, and instead relates to things such as freedom to operate, partnership building and enhancing reputation.

Take, for example, the announcement a few years ago by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that the company “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone, who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” This bold act had a number of benefits for innovation: it put healthy pressure on Tesla to keep inventing in order to remain ahead of rivals; it helped to nudge the rest of the automotive industry to support and invest in Tesla’s business model; and it generated massive positive media attention for Tesla and it’s visionary CEO, which in turn improved the company’s brand and reputation, thereby helping it attract and retain top talent and create a virtuous cycle of innovation that will help it stay ahead of competitors.

But such creative use of IP is not just reserved for the high-tech companies of Silicon-Valley. In developing the solutions that we need to meet the challenges of feeding our growing population, the food and agriculture industry increasingly relies on broad cooperation and the integration of many technical building blocks owned across many parties. Simplified structures for technology transfer and cross-licensing programs are therefore essentiual to help to ensure that innovations can be developed more quickly and efficiently.

During my time working for the multinational company Syngenta, I worked on an important project to shape a new use of IP that both rewards invention and also encourages openness — following the principle of “free access but not access for free.” Together with a small team of visionary intrapreneurs, we developed a new strategy for the company that moved away from a traditional view of IP as a monopolistic tool to exclude others, to one that was more collaborative and which allowed competition to take place at a higher level.

The key elements of the the strategy, which we called the “4-Pillar Strategy,” included:

  • Improve patent quality so that patents are only granted on true innovations.
  • Enhance patent transparency on commercial seed varieties so that breeders can use these plants in their breeding programs without fear of infringing. (see PINTO database)
  • Ensure access to genetic diversity by allowing breeders to work freely with the underlying germplasm of plant varieties containing patented traits.
  • Improve technology dissemination and integrated solutions by establishing solutions to facilitate access to patented innovations through licensing platforms.

Grasping the opportunities of the digital age and inspired by successful models from other industries such as electronics, music and pharma, we also launched TraitAbility — a ground-breaking web-based licensing platform that provides breeders and research institutes around the world with quick, easy, and cost-effective access to Syngenta’s patented native traits in commercial varieties, as well as patented enabling technologies, molecular markers and other information that helps accelerate technology and know-how sharing.

In addition, we also worked with our partners in the vegetable industry to successfully develop the International Licensing Platform for Vegetables, a balanced approach which enables broader access to patented technologies throughout the industry at low transactional costs, with high legal certainty and at fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory conditions. It is also the first industry-driven technology transfer platform where control of transfer prices does not exclusively reside with the licensor, but which allows for any challenges/disputes by the licensee to be reviewed and amended by an independent expert committee.

It was a great experience helping one of the biggest companies in the industry take a new approach to IP. There were certainly no textbooks on how to do what we did, and we had to learn to overcome many internal and external obstacles along the way. Internally, we had to make the case to those that thought we we were “too easily giving away” our valuable IP assets. Externally, we had to build a basis of trust with stakeholders who were skeptical of our intentions. We learned to follow the rules used by the scientific and creative communities, rather than those of lawyers.

Going forward, I believe that solutions must incorporate more collaboration, cross-industry learnings and open innovation concepts. With the world heading towards a population of 10 billion, we need to foster as much innovation in food systems and technology as possible. This doesn’t mean we have to completely abandon the concept of IP, but we can modify it’s use to offer both protection to the innovators and improved access to outsiders.

For more information, check out this article we wrote about adapting IP to an evolvong ag innovation landscape:

Also, here are some slides our friend Diderik van Wingerden presented at the TFF Summit in Amsterdam about open business models in food and ag: Di

Would love your thoughts, ideas and reactions! Email me anytime at

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