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The Hard Path to Open Source Bioinnovation

How Cambia Is Strengthening the Agricultural Open Source Infrastructure

You probably associate the “open-source” licensing system with software (Linux and the Apache web server). But the original open source innovators weren’t coders: They were farmers.

For centuries farmers optimized their crops and livestock by breeding and selection, and retained the best plants or animals and shared the seed or lines with other farmers, who then further improved on them. This represents the conventional model of open-source licensing: where a party can use and develop a product, and then use that technology to profit as long as they do not block others improving upon that technology.

In the 20th century the business model of seed supply drifted away from open source. The many legal changes that occurred (The Plant Patent Act of 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970) gradually shifted emphasis onto private control of collections of genetic traits, or “germplasm.”

As plant varieties became privatized and commoditized, corporations began to take more control of the innovation process. Economic and reputational incentives began to overshadow philosophical considerations of how publicly funded research translates into public good.[1] Sharing of technologies was deemphasized.

By the mid-1980s patent policy allowed the full patent protection for open pollinated plants and genetic material and excluded farmers from reselling seeds to one another.[2] The last consolidation of control came during the 1990s when the developing world adopted the industrialized model of treating plant genes as items of “commerce.”[3]

As germplasm became increasingly an object of profit rather than open-source sharing, corporations began to spend enormous amounts on security to protect their agricultural microbiological assets, many times in court. Monsanto, one of the world’s largest agricultural biotech firms, even contemplated using (but never used due to its unpopularity) a “terminator” plant that produced infertile seeds, which would prevent farmers from reusing the genetically modified organism, or GMO.

Today six companies control 70 percent of agricultural biotech and continue to be embroiled in lawsuits with farmers and each other. This corporate control quashes innovation at the academic and small-business levels.

An open-source platform for bioinnovation?

The biotechnology revolution has failed to answer gaping problems facing humans: hunger, natural resource stewardship, and disease prevention. The agricultural biotechnology business model is structured such that corporations are the only players who can amass all of the necessary components of innovation.

Recognizing the blockage keeping university innovators and farmers out of the innovation system, a molecular biologist named Richard Jefferson founded Cambia in 1986. The goal of Cambia was to bring open-source principles to biology. For two decades Cambia worked to expand and democratize life-science based innovation.

In 2005 Cambia developed BioForge, a set of online tools for enabling scientists to collaborate on genetic research. BioForge was designed in a similar vein to the enormously successful open-source computer software site,, but would work with molecular biological tools for plant genetics instead. Cambia published molecular biological tools to its website. They also developed the BiOS license—an open-source license agreement—to accompany BioForge, to free up patent licenses and material transfer agreements in the way that copyright was freed up in software.

But despite the ambitious aspirations, BioForge was shut down after just three years. The academics who used BioForge failed to contribute substantially to the basic toolkit of open source gene transfer that “seeded” the BioForge, and thus did not advance the development of an improved toolkit that could enable new enterprises as Jefferson envisioned. BioForge also did not unite actors to work towards translating advances made in the lab into applicable solutions. In his interview with Science Progress, Jefferson said, “BioForge failed, but did so in a way that clearly illustrated structural problems with innovation that relies on public sector contributors.”

For this discouraging result, Jefferson placed much of the blame on the academic incentive structure and industry intellectual property dominance. The problem with BioForge, writes Jefferson, “was that it was too little, too late.”

By the time the program got off the ground, industry was intensely consolidated in a few hands, and the public had already lost any confidence that their interests were being promoted and protected by a capable public sector.” In his interview, Jefferson added, academics are not rewarded enough for contributing back to society. “Academics use standard industry toolkits instead, irrespective of the limits on who can build upon them.”

The nature of biotechnology poses additional barriers to it operating on an open-source model. Whereas a computer scientist controls all the components of production, and can get feedback on her program within days or even hours, progress in biotechnology—and more critically, the products and services built with biotechnology—takes many years. This timeline, and the need to engage many diverse skills and cultures—regulatory compliance, legal, marketing, manufacturing, support, etc.—is expensive, and makes product development through biotechnology risky and resource intensive. With time, costs may go down and the process may accelerate. This may mean the large biotechnology companies will do the same as IBM and Sun Microsystems did by releasing some of their patents for open-source development.

But for now this structure has helped justify why patents are so ubiquitous in biotechnology. Patents ensure researchers and investors that they will be granted a temporary monopoly over their invention during the long period of time it takes to develop and profit from it. In contrast, the information technology industry moves so quickly that patents for software are rare.

For Monsanto and large biotech companies, patents have helped with the advancement of genetically modified crops. Monsanto says it spends more than $2 million per day to develop and deliver crops to farmers.

But Jefferson, speaking from his experience with the system, argues that overprotection through patenting and enforcement of patents converts patents from being enabling forces to being obstacles.

Dr. Jefferson knows from the beginning of his career that sharing basic research tools enables faster progress. He freely shared his graduate work on a genetic tool called the “GUS gene” that enabled scientists to monitor gene activity, which went on to revolutionize the industry. By sharing his tool, he argues he enabled faster progress that even ironically led to Monsanto’s first Roundup Ready soybean crop—the cash cow that fueled their ambitious growth. The tool has been cited in more than 10,000 academic papers since and has been used by every company in agricultural biotechnology, generally under license.

In retrospect, Dr. Jefferson said he’d started Cambia hoping that the toolkit Cambia provided for free would jumpstart a more productive and inclusive open-source culture in bioengineering. But science-enabled innovation, according to Jefferson, is like a “jigsaw puzzle: you need to assemble all the pieces to achieve the big picture – the product or service that will be a viable economic innovation.”

Achieving this big picture was difficult because “there was incredible friction between the different actors involved in biotechnology that prevented many kinds of advances.” BioForge wasn’t enough to align the many different needed stakeholders—the researchers, investors, customers, and producers—needed to make the open-source methodology work well for the life sciences.

If at first you don’t succeed…

But past failures have helped Cambia learn what it needs to accomplish. As Jefferson wrote on his blog:

Progress through the scientific method is based on having hypotheses *disproved*, not proved. In the course of this – with careful design and with some grudging willingness be wrong – one gets closer to a truth.

The past has provided insight as to where change is needed in order to allow people around the world to use insights of basic research and translate them into valuable products to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

We live in a time when nearly 4 billion people earn a daily wage that is less than what it costs to purchase a latte at Starbucks, and things may get much worse as human-caused climate change continues to cause global temperatures to rise. If science-based innovation is part of the solution to hunger, climate change, and poverty, then incentives must be structured such that scientists—and importantly, their institutions—see inventions through to development and commercialization, and collaborate openly so as to benefit all humans.

Dr. Jefferson has not given up. Since BioForge’s trial and the BiOS movement’s lackluster impact, Jefferson’s social enterprise has focused on changing this incentive structure through a focus on increased transparency to increase inclusiveness among bioinnovation participants.

Enabling innovation involves a paradigm shift in how business is conducted. In his interview with Science Progress, Jefferson pointed out that many companies spend millions paying companies like Thomson/Reuters, LexisNexis, and the myriad legal and business clergy who use their products to guide them on patent, legal, regulatory and market data in a new field of research and/or business. Small startups and academic innovators often can’t afford these services.

Therefore, Jefferson’s group has begun to develop a tool that will remove the need for a third party to understand an industry landscape. It’s called “The Lens.”

The Lens builds off of two of Cambia’s most successful tools, the Patent Lens and the Initiative for Open Innovation, which allow anyone an easy means to search publicly available patent and innovation knowledge, and more importantly, to share and collectively improve that knowledge.

Jefferson described the new Lens initiative as more ambitious: It will host all patents in most languages and will provide tools to link patents and to build in patent information into other websites from the Lens page. On his blog, Jefferson writes, “Bar, pie, map and timeline charts created in real time from facets derived from over 80 million patent documents allow exploration and filtering by inventors, applicants, jurisdictions, data type, family and more.” Jefferson says this “cyberinfrastructure” is designed to be “disruptive,” and will help users trace who owns the rights to patents. What he really hopes it achieves is the removal of barriers that have prevented collaborative innovation to solve societal problems.

Jefferson says The Lens will debut in a couple months, but Cambia has released the beta version. Pay attention to his blog to learn more about the full version’s release.

Cambia believes that democratizing science will help enable innovation. The Lens takes a different approach from BioForge, and solves different problems. Where BioForge sought to create an entirely new platform for collaborative research, The Lens instead addresses the need for clear, transparent, and easily accessible information, while letting researchers use the platforms already in widespread use. Freeing up access to information about technology makes it easier for anyone to innovate—and for everyone to benefit from new discoveries.

Large corporations have dictated the course of agriculture for too long. It’s time for the Science Spring.

Sam Finegold is a rising sophomore at Harvard College and a member of the summer 2012 class of American Progress interns. Thanks to Dr. Richard Jefferson for his generous time interviewing for this article.


[1] Kevin Frank Howe, “Wisdom in the earth: an examination of the history of intellectual property rights in plants and seeds,” Ph.D dissertation, Iowa State University, 2011, available at

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights,” available at (last accessed November 2011).


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