When UCL and Mercedes started to develop the Ventura breathing aid to help plug the shortage of respiratory equipment in the UK’s National Health Service, one of the first calls they made was to Weng Sie Wong, a senior manager in the UCL technology transfer office, to ask if they would be infringing any patents or trademarks.
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“They wanted to check the background and see if there would be any issues,” says Wong. “Fortunately because they were repurposing such an old device all the patents had lapsed.”
The team could proceed without hold-ups and the first device was produced just 100 hours after the development team’s initial meeting.
But then they struck a second problem. They wanted to distribute the plans for free to anyone who could use them, but wanted to retain some control over the process.
“You can’t just put it out there on the internet. We wanted to do this in a controlled manner, and to release it to people who can do something with it that is useful,” says Wong.
Licensing and patents may seem trivial in the heat of a crisis. Indeed many companies, such as pharma company AbbVie and ventilator-maker Medtronic, have already pledged not to assert patent rights around their Covid-19 treatments. And indeed, countries like Israel and Germany have indicated that they are prepared to use special laws to circumvent patent rights if needed in the fight to control the pandemic. It is clear that normal intellectual property (IP) rules are no longer in operation.
“You can’t just put it out there on the internet.”
At the same time, Wong warns that ignoring IP rules completely will cause big problems further down the line.
For one thing, the team wanted to limit their own liability. “Just because you are doing it for altruistic purposes, doesn’t mean people won’t sue you,” says Wong. “Maybe in the heat of the moment they will say they won’t, but If the device ends up doing someone harm those liabilities will still come back to you.”
The team also wanted to make sure the blueprints ended up with the right people. As news of the development work emerged, the UCL/Mercedes team started to receive hundreds of emails asking for details, but some of them were from people who simply wanted to build one for personal use or make a profit from the device. These were scenarios that ran counter to the team’s objectives of providing a healthcare solution that would benefit the largest possible number of people.
“We needed some rudimentary vetting,” says Wong.
Luckily, she could offer a quick solution. The university already had a rapid licensing platform E-lucid, which could be repurposed to distribute technologies for fighting Covid-19.
The idea was to make getting a licence as simple as online shopping, with only a few clicks of a button.
The platform had been developed by Marina Santilli, associate director at the tech transfer office, to help speed up the licensing of technology created by UCL academics. The idea was to make getting a licence as simple as online shopping — with only a few clicks of a button.
Hundreds of requests for Ventura breathing aid licences came through the platform in just the first few days after going live, and now Santilli is hoping to make the platform available for any other Covid-19 inventors who may not have their own lawyers to draft any bespoke agreement.
A similar idea has also been put together by a group of US law professors, lawyers and scientists — the Open Covid Pledge allows any company to quickly offer royalty-free access to its Covid-19 related technologies. Scientists at UC Berkley, who have been involved in the multi-year patent battle of Crispr/Cas9 technology, have been part of the team pushing this effort.
“Scientists are very savvy with patents,” says Jorge Contreras, the University of Utah law professor who has helped set up the scheme. “And they know how much even simple collaboration with other universities can be slowed down by heavy paperwork.” Tech companies such as Intel have also supported the project.
A multitude of grassroots efforts have sprung up the design everything from new ventilators to 3D printed facemasks. Most will not yet have had a chance to pause to think about the IP — in many cases there has simply been a race to get the designs tested and delivered to hospitals as fast as possible.
But when they pause to draw breath, the E-lucid platform or the Open Covid Pledge will be good options to consider. And, even when the crisis is over, radical streamlining of IP like this could remain on the menu as a way to speed up the development of new ideas.