Interplay Between IP and Global Health at BIO IP Counsels Committee Spring Conference

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) will hold its Intellectual Property Counsels Committee Spring Conference and Meeting in Seattle, Washington from April 13-15th.  That meeting will feature a keynote address by Erik Iverson, an Associate General Counsel with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who works exclusively on its Global Health Initiative.  I recently had the opportunity to go on the record with Mr. Iverson to discuss how the Gates Foundation approaches its humanitarian efforts. 

Iverson told me in no uncertain terms, “[A] fundamental premise at the foundation is that we absolutely respect intellectual property rights.  We recognize their importance and we certainly recognize the importance of companies and their involvement in developing products and having them commercialized both in developed and developing countries.”  But how can the Gates Foundation balance the intellectual property rights of those who create live saving technologies and treatments while at the same time ensuring the humanitarian mission? 

According to Iverson, this requires a different approach to each situation taking into consideration the unique factual circumstances involved, such as the disease at issue, the marketability that may exist in developed countries and the need to incentivize the desired outcome.  Iverson explained, “[T]he life science community is all about helping people and saving lives… [we are] trying to figure out how to balance them to push the development of products that well, very few people historically have put much effort into…”

In effect, it seems that the Gates Foundation takes a holistic approach to intellectual property in a way that no government ever could.  Governments need to set the rules for all players and setting different rules for each different factual presentation is unwieldy.  With a humanitarian effort such at the Gates Foundation, which has a developed set of guiding principles, each pursuit can and does take into consideration the unique circumstances and allows the Gates Foundation to use its resources to maximize the good to those in need in developing nations, which may be using non-patented innovations or may be through using patented innovations. 

Indeed, the Gates Foundation seems to understand one thing that escapes many who pursue the greater good.  Without accommodating the need for profitability there is only so much any individual or company can do to forward the greater good.  Indeed, Iverson takes a much different approach than many, he explained, “[O]ne might say that the need for profit is inappropriate in the global health context - we don’t see it that way.   Profit creates a sustainable solution; profit incentivizes people to get involved in areas where they might not otherwise get involved.  It helps to fund further research.”  In a nutshell, without understanding, appreciating and even using the profit motive highly talented individuals and companies do not get involved, which not only doesn’t forward the humanitarian mission, but rather makes it more difficult. 

So how does the Gates Foundation measure its success?  According to Iverson, it is all about the lives saved.  He explained, “At the end of the day though, it is the number of lives saved and health solutions available to people most in need in developing countries and then it’s a matter of finding how you measure that.”  I pressed him on this point a bit, because it seems to me that if success is about lives saved you are almost setting yourself up to be disappointed by not saving enough people and perhaps focusing on those that you didn’t save.  I asked him about the “feel good moments” that let him know that the cause is not hopeless, progress is being made and things can be different.

Iverson said, “I’ll tell you Gene, where the real feel good moments are.  When you work hard tackling one of these insanely hard complex issues that is say the development of a new TB therapeutic that’s not going to take somebody multiple pills every day for several months.  And rallying a set of players, a set of stake holders many of whom may not have otherwise been involved in global health, all of a sudden staking a claim in their involvement in this activity and watching those relationships grow.”

The life science industry is indeed all about helping people and saving lives, and as rewarding as it is to have that kind of success the thing that seems most important and fundamentally transformational is the effort to change the dialogue and set up a foundation upon which increasingly more good can come.  Yes, the Gates Foundation is saving lives and making a difference, but so are the thousands of for-profit live sciences companies.  The secret-sauce the Gates Foundation employs is simply the realization that humanitarian efforts and profit motives are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, it seems to me that facilitating long term, sustainable relationships might just be more important than any individual endeavor. 

As the old saying goes, give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.  As many individuals benefit from the work of the Gates Foundation day in and day out it might be easy to miss the efforts to fundamentally change the paradigm.  But facilitating relationships, forging partnerships and engaging for humanitarian solutions without sacrificing profitability is what will see the movement organically and sustainably move forward and do the maximum good.

Gene Quinn is a US Patent Attorney with the firm Zies, Widerman & Malek and specializes in strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting, patent prosecution and technology licensing.  He is also the President and founder of which readers of the ABA Journal voted as the top intellectual property law blog on the internet in 2010.