Harnessing the power of the private sector - An interview with Francis Gurry

September 2015

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry believes that closer engagement with the private sector, through public-private partnerships offers an opportunity for the Organization to boost its capacity to advance agreed public policy goals. Mr. Gurry explains the relevance of these partnerships to WIPO and discusses the opportunities and challenges they present.

There is strong interest in public-private partnerships at the moment. Why is that?

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry (Photo: WIPO/Berrod)

We have seen a general trend over the past 25 years towards the privatization of public functions and utilities, which means the size of the private sector has grown. On top of this, spare capital in the public sector has dried up as governments grapple with austerity measures following the global financial crisis. Today we see that spare capital now lies mainly in private sector hands. For example, in 2012, the budget for the United Nations (UN) system as a whole amounted to USD40 billion. In the same year, private giving in the United States alone amounted to some USD320 billion. It is therefore desirable to find a way to harness some of that capital to fund public programs.

Public-private partnerships can be very effective vehicles for implementing policies agreed by our member states. For example, the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired of Otherwise Print Disabled seeks to address the famine in accessible-format books by establishing the legal framework for such works to move more freely around the world. But while the Treaty creates the possibility of cross border exchange of these books, it does not actually move them. To help make that happen – in line with the agreed policy objective of WIPO member states – we formed a public-private partnership, namely the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), which in fact evolved from the WIPO Stakeholders’ Platform established by member states in 2009.

How are WIPO’s public-private partnerships managed?

I want to underline that that public-private partnerships are not a vehicle for establishing intellectual property (IP) laws or policies. WIPO’s normative program remains the prerogative of member states, and member states alone. It is a purely public function.

Public-private partnership initiatives at WIPO are carefully managed in line with the Organizations principles of good governance. They feature in our Program and Budget proposals, which are reviewed and adopted by member states, and like any other program activity, they are subject to rigorous oversight, audit and reporting requirements.

They must also have a practical mechanism, a committee or a board made up of stakeholder representatives, to guide the operations of the partnership.

Can you describe examples of WIPO’s successful involvement in public-private partnerships?

WIPO Re:Search and the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) are two of our most prominent public-private partnerships. 

The very successful WIPO Re:Search partnership was established, broadly speaking, to address the acceleration of drug discovery for neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis. It is not concerned with the delivery of health services, but is very much upstream in the research, development and commercialization spectrum. 

WIPO Re:Search enables participants to share their IP assets among themselves to advance research into neglected tropical diseases , malaria and tuberculosis. It is designed to address a deficit in research and development (R&D) funding in these diseases which particularly affect the poorest populations of the world. These populations have no purchasing power so the ordinary market incentives for investment in R&D and product development do not exist. There is no market for these products but there is a very real health need, making it a classic case for public intervention.

The Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda recently joined the WIPO Re:Search Consortium increasing its membership to 98.  Ninety-four research collaborations have also been concluded between participating institutions to date. We are very grateful to our partner, BIOVentures for Global Health (BVGH), which facilitates these collaborations.

About WIPO Re:Search

WIPO Re:Search catalyzes the development of medical products for neglected tropical diseases, malaria and tuberculosis through innovative research partnerships and knowledge sharing. These diseases affect over one billion of the poorest people on the planet. It was established by WIPO in collaboration with BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) in 2011.

Results to date:
  • 98 leading pharmaceutical companies (including Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Eisai, GSK, Merck KGaA, MSD, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Takeda) and other private and public sector research organizations have joined the consortium to share their IP, compounds, expertise, facilities and know-how royalty-free with researchers around the world working on therapies to treat these diseases.
  • By September 2015, the WIPO Re:Search partnership hub had established 94 collaborations for knowledge-sharing between participants.

Similarly, the ABC brings together all relevant stakeholders: authors; rights-holder organizations (collective management organizations) for authors and publishers; publishers; libraries; the World Blind Union; and the Daisy Consortium, an umbrella organization which is working to create technical solutions for people with visual impairment. It is getting considerable buy-in from stakeholders.

To meet its aim of increasing the number of books available in accessible formats worldwide, the ABC does three things. First, it acts as a cross-border book exchange, enabling participating libraries to download for free books that have already been produced in accessible formats by other participating libraries. Until the Marrakesh Treaty enters into force (when 20 countries ratify it) the ABC is responsible for clearing rights with the relevant rights-holders to permit accessible format books to move across borders.

Secondly, the ABC builds up the technical skills and institutions that developing countries need so they can themselves produce and distribute more books in accessible formats to people who need them.

About the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC)

Launched in June 2014, the ABC aims to increase the number of books worldwide in accessible formats and to make them available to people with visual impairment. The ABC is an alliance comprising WIPO, and organizations representing people with visual impairment, libraries and rights holders.

Results to date:
  • 14 participating libraries have contributed their catalogues of searchable titles to the ABC Book Exchange (i.e., the TIGAR Service), which now includes some 290,000 titles in accessible formats in 55 languages.
  • Since June 2015, some 3,000 books have been downloaded by participating libraries generating savings of around USD6 million.
  • In just one year, the ABC capacity-building program has enabled the production of 1,588 academic books in accessible formats, benefitting 23,500 students in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It has also conducted multiple training courses on the latest accessible book production techniques for non-governmental organizations, government agencies and commercial publishers.
  • Twelve publishers have signed the ABC Charter for Accessible Publishing.

Finally, through its Accessible Publishing activities, the ABC is encouraging publishers to ensure that every time they publish a work, it is produced in formats that are accessible both to sighted people and to those with visual impairments.

WIPO GREEN is yet another interesting public-private partnership. It aims is to support the market in eco-friendly and clean energy technologies by increasing transparency and enabling actors to come together more easily.

About WIPO GREEN

WIPO GREEN is an interactive marketplace that promotes innovation and diffusion of green technologies. Launched in 2013, it consists of an online database and network that brings together multiple players in the green technology value chain, and connects owners of new eco-friendly technologies with individuals or companies looking to commercialize, license or otherwise access or distribute them. WIPO GREEN is setting its sights on becoming the “go-to” platform for green technologies.

Results to date:
  • 63 partners have joined the platform, and over 400 users.
  • The WIPO GREEN database is growing by 20 entries per month and includes some 2000 records of available technologies for licensing or sale and identified needs.
  • At a matchmaking event in April 2015, 16 potential business collaborations were initiated involving technology owners from Malaysia and the Republic of Korea and technology seekers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

What would you say are the main lessons from WIPO’s experience so far?

We are still learning about public-private partnerships, but it is very important to implement them gradually and to establish very clear objectives. All relevant stakeholders need to be on board and to participate in shaping operations. And that takes time.

Consultation and reporting are also extremely important. We endeavor to ensure member states are fully on board and understand the nature of each partnership. In addition to keeping member states informed through our usual, established institutional reporting mechanisms, we also report on progress through the dedicated website of each partnership and through the main WIPO website.

What new partnerships are in the pipeline?

There are no specific plans at the moment. It depends on the opportunities that present themselves, but we have to proceed gradually and carefully to ensure that any new partnerships pursue objectives that are agreed by member states. At present, we are consolidating existing partnerships and working to ensure their financial sustainability and success.

What are the main advantages of public-private partnerships for WIPO?

Public-private partnerships can deliver on the objectives set by member states. They provide access both to intellectual resources and to financial capital that do not exist in the public sector. With WIPO Re:Search, for example, the private sector is opening access to compound libraries, unpublished scientific data and other IP. With the ABC, publishers and authors are contributing intellectual assets in the form of their published works, and of course libraries are also playing a key role in contributing their collections. In each case the private sector is also contributing financial resources.

And the challenges?

Keeping everyone on board is extremely important. This involves making sure that everyone, from member states to all the different stakeholders involved, feel they are part of and have a say in the operation of the partnership. Maintaining regular communication among partners is also necessary to ensure they are up to date with new developments.

Financial sustainability is also extremely important. One of the reasons for public-private partnerships is to access the financial resources of the private sector. Sustaining that interest is a challenge. Private sector stakeholders need to see the fundamental importance and merit of the project, and to perceive it as non-threatening to and compatible with their business interests. Companies involved in WIPO Re:Search are actually helping to create new markets. The same goes for books in accessible formats and for WIPO GREEN.

Do public-private partnerships require a cultural shift for the Organization

We have to remember that WIPO is an intergovernmental organization and is driven by the priorities established by member states. But the world is rapidly changing and if the Organization is to remain relevant, it has to adapt to that world.

Public-private partnerships do not affect the Organization’s intergovernmental character. Member states still drive the Organization and establish its normative program, but public-private partnerships can help WIPO in implementing public policy objectives set by member states. This is evident from our experience with WIPO Re:Search, the ABC and WIPO GREEN which, thanks to the support of the private sector, are enabling us to advance generally agreed public policy goals with respect to health, literacy and the environment.

Can these partnerships expand WIPO’s ability to respond to the rising demand for development assistance?

If you look at the delivery of capacity building and technical assistance activities at WIPO, it has always involved the private sector. For example, we rely on trained patent attorneys to provide technical assistance in drafting patent applications. In many instances, of course, technical assistance is also provided by the IP offices of member states. We need to draw on relevant external resources, whether they exist in the public or the private sector, to ensure that developing countries are able to improve their capacity to use the IP system.

How do you measure success?

There are many ways to measure the success of these partnerships, but each should be judged according to its own set of indicators. In the context of the ABC, for example, when a participating library can get hold of books in accessible formats from a counterpart in other countries, they can use the money they would otherwise have spent on converting that work to convert other works that are not as yet available in accessible formats. When Harry Potter was first published, accessible versions in English were created separately in five different countries. The ABC helps to reduce such costly duplication. The money saved can be used to create more new books in accessible formats. Since May 31, 2015, participating libraries have downloaded over 3,000 books via the ABC, generating savings of around USD6 million.

Similarly, WIPO Re:Search is creating opportunities for scientists working on specific disease challenges in developing countries to work in the laboratories of leading pharmaceutical companies and universities in the industrialized world. Sharing intellectual assets for research improves the quality of primary materials available to scientists, which in turn improves research outcomes considerably. 

Public-private partnerships bring together the different contributions of multiple partners – governments, industry, civil society, academia – so that we are able to reach beyond what we could otherwise achieve.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.