Better sharing to promote innovation

As the scale of commercial biosystems is rapidly increasing, patent “thickets” and proliferating cross-licensing arrangements are becoming problematic, even for large pharma and agrochemical companies, and can be crippling for small companies. The restrictive licensing of powerful technologies and the prohibitive cost of protecting IP for smaller enterprises threatens to impede the pace of research in plant synthetic biology. 

Innovation in a young field like synthetic biology requires freedom to operate. We believe steps to facilitate free exchange of DNA parts and tools will substantially speed the take-up of new technologies in plant synthetic biology, and foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the UK. 

OpenPlant promotes a two-tier approach to managing intellectual property. Potentially valuable applications can still be patent protected in the conventional manner, with no changes to current practices at this level. However we are exploring less restrictive models for distributing low-level tools and components for plant biotechnology, and promote the establishment of open standards and free exchange of materials to facilitate scientific exchange, innovation and open source business models in biology. 

The UK is in an excellent position to promote these new approaches. The three OpenPlant partner institutions have enterprise offices that are experienced in handling plant biotechnology patents. These, with our partners in the BioBricks Foundation and Bionet, are helping to establish standard practices for distribution of DNA parts, with potential global impact.

International working group

Twenty four experts were recruited to a working group for intellectual property solutions for OpenPlant and the wider synthetic biology community. The group was convened over 2015 and 2016. The purpose of these meetings was to refine the design goals of the Open Materials Transfer Agreement (OpenMTA) - a collaboration between the BioBricks Foundation and OpenPlant to enable open exchange of plasmids and other biological materials. The working group has produced a report that addresses the challenges of providing improved  mechanisms for open transfer of materials. 

The principle goals of the OMTA are to:

  • eliminate or reduce transaction costs associated with access, use, modification, and redistribution of materials;
  • minimize waste and redundancy in the scientific research process; and
  • promote access to materials for researchers in less privileged institutions and world regions.

Features of the OMTA include:

  • Access – Materials available under the OMTA are free of any royalty or fees, other than appropriate and nominal fees for preparation and distribution.
  • Attribution – Contributors may request attribution for materials distributed under the OMTA.
  • Reuse – Materials available under the OMTA may be modified or used to create new substances.
  • Redistribution – The OMTA does not restrict any party from selling or giving away the Materials, either as received or as part of a collection or derivative work.
  • Non-discrimination / Inclusivity – The OMTA supports the transfer of material between researchers at all types of institutions, including those at academic, industry, government, and community laboratories.

The OpenMTA is a simple, standardized legal tool that enables individuals and organizations to share their materials on an open basis. The primary purpose of the OMTA is to eliminate or reduce transaction costs associated with access, use, modification, and redistribution of materials. This in turn will help minimize waste and redundancy in the scientific research process and promote access to materials for researchers in less privileged institutions and world regions.

Download IP Working Group report (132KB)


Jim Haseloff, University of Cambridge
Linda Kahl, BioBricks Foundation
Colette Matthewman, John Innes Centre, Norwich
Jenny Molloy, University of Cambridge

Dominic Berry, University of Edinburgh
Sean Butler, University of Cambridge
Jane Calvert, University of Edinburgh
Drew Endy, Stanford University and the BioBricks Foundation
Fernan Federici, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Tony Ford, Open Forum Europe
Daphne Ioannidis, University of Cambridge
Puneet Kishor, Extra-institutional (previously Creative Commons)
Jayne Nicholson, Norwich Biosciences Institute
Anne Osbourn, John Innes Centre, Norwich
Geraint Parry, Cardiff University and the GARNet Community
Nicola Patron. The Sainsbury Laboratory
Ben Pellegrini, Cambridge IP
Julia Powles, University of Cambridge
David Rejeski, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars
Krishna Ravi Srinivas, Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries
Helen Young, Cambridge Enterprise

Diane Cabell, iCommons
Andrew Rens, Duke Law School
Iain Thomas, Cambridge Enterprise

with assistance from
Kate Armfield, University of Glasgow
Fergus Riche, University of Cambridge

Co-hosted by the University of Cambridge and the BioBricks Foundation