Collaborative Innovation

Collaborators seeking watershed innovations should divide their work and focus on finding solutions to smaller components of a problem, each contributing to the larger goal. Intellectual property is a flexible tool that can support such communal efforts addressing large challenges.

These were two key messages delivered at the “WIPO Conference on Open Innovation: Collaborative Projects and the Future of Knowledge.” The conference, held Jan. 22-23, 2013 at WIPO headquarters in Geneva, featured fifteen high-level speakers, with roundtable discussions for participants. It is part of WIPO’s efforts to provide a forum for discussion on the role of community-based or crowd-sourced innovation, and the relationship of IP to these kinds of projects. IP serves as a support mechanism for most open source activities, including in the creative industries, and in particular for complex crowd sourcing projects.

“Start locally and build globally,” said Mr. Richard Wilder, Associate General Counsel of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, Washington.

Mr. Wilder said in his keynote speech that large consortia can be unwieldy, but that there are ways of making the work manageable.

He highlighted the Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched in July 2006 and now comprises 600 investigators in 103 institutions across 16 countries. The various partners were working on various aspects of an AIDS vaccine, while remaining mindful of the overall goal.

“If you had 103 institutions on the same level, it would be difficult to manage, so breaking it down into smaller pieces while remembering the entire endeavor, is important,” he said. “Open innovation is critical to the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

But one solution is to assign collaborators smaller pieces of the puzzle to work with, while ensuring they still understand the overall goals. “Focus on solving that piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Richard Wilder speaks about creative collaborations behind technological innovations. (Photo: WIPO)

A developing country perspective

For Mr. Samir Brahmachari, former Director General of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and former Secretary for Science and Technology, a division of labor even among collaborators is crucial: “Break down the problems into smaller pieces,” he said in a keynote address.

Mr. Brahmachari, who is currently Chief Mentor of the Open Source Drug Discovery initiative, said that new Internet and communications technologies had opened up the drug-discovery process, handing smaller groups and individual researchers new tools to meet one another and add to a body of research from afar.

He said young Indians, who had grown up using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, understood this innately. “Go beyond the boundaries, find people you didn’t know.” He said. “Facebook users will understand this.”

He said that the open-source operating system Linux initially saw inputs from hundreds of programmers, but that number has grown over 1,000 and that 95 percent of the world’s supercomputers now use the system – a working example of open innovation.

Samir Brahmachari addresses question of open collaborations in the emerging world. (Photo: WIPO)

The IP connection

Intellectual property systems – such as patents, copyright, trademarks and industrial designs – could be used as tools to support open-innovation projects, the participants said. Ultimately, the right mixture would have to balance the interests of participants with those of the ultimate beneficiaries, they said.

“We rely on IP to stand up our collaborations,” said Mr. Wilder, adding that for many of his organizations “that IP would be broadly licensed,” in some cases with “no formalities or payment of royalties.”

“IP is an instrument,” said Mr. Brahmachari. “How you use that instrument is a question - and open innovation is one way of using the instrument.” This was echoed by a number of other participants who noted the positive contribution IP can make in open source innovation, in particular in complex and large crowd sourcing projects.

Open collaborations for film

The conference also addressed open collaborations for film. Speakers included US filmmaker Sarah Lotfi, German filmaker Pia Marais, British producer Chris Auty Algerian artist Zaphira Yacef and French scenographer François Confino. Panelists discussed open collaborative models in film, particularly at a time when the high-cost of film production is no longer compatible with the short film lifetime on the market.