Outcry over bid to control patent rights

September 1, 1995

The Wellcome Trust, Britain's biggest research charity, has delayed the announcement of plans to control intellectual property rights following an outcry from universities.

The charity was to announce its new policy on July 20, saying in a press release that it had been "formally agreed" and that CRC Technology, the technology transfer arm of the Cancer Research Campaign, would represent it in matters to do with IPR and commercial exploitation.

But the press conference was cancelled at the last minute and no announcement is expected until the end of this month.

The trust denies that it has held off as a result of pressure from universities but concedes that "there has been a lot of concern" among universities. Institutions fear that future Wellcome Trust grants may include regulations that prevent them from exploiting research findings via their own technology transfer companies.

Wellcome says that the cancellation was due to several factors including summer holidays and waiting to ensure that its plans conformed with Charity Commission policy on IPR. The commission announced its draft guidelines in early August.

The trust is expected to go ahead with its plans, although it says that it has considered universities' views in making its policy. CRC Technology has already appointed two staff to deal with areas of research that the Wellcome Trust funds.

David Thomas, pro rector (research contracts) at Imperial College London and chief executive of IMPEL, the college's technology transfer company, said that some universities would fear entrusting the development of IPR to a small company because it is such a "high-risk business".

The trust told a public meeting that it intended to employ 12 staff. "I imagine that they have under-estimated what is needed," he said, comparing it with British Biotechnology, a technology transfer company which employs about 70 people.

But Sean Hird, head of legal services at CRC Technology, said that many of the Wellcome Trust's interests are in basic research so there are fewer areas for patent activity than there would initially seem.

He said that CRC Technology negotiations are completely independent of the CRC's grant-giving decisions. Its policy is to set up general IPR agreements with all institutions.

Dr Hird said that many universities welcome such agreements: "The patenting costs are borne in the first instance by ourselves." He said that 50 per cent of profits from a patent go back to the university.

Adrian Hill, ex-chairman of the former University Directors of Industrial Liaison, said: "There has been quite a healthy series of exchanges within the university sector."

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