Could Patent Reform Hurt Cleantech?

3/16/09

(Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from written testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.)

Out of the many patents that will be filed in the coming years, there will be a handful of world-changing inventions that can crucially alter the course of our future. These are the jewels we need to protect:

—inventions that solve climate change
—inventions that rid us of foreign oil dependence
—inventions that prevent and treat pandemics
—inventions that address diabetes and Alzheimer’s, saving 40 percent of the future Medicare budget

It is important to emphasize that the patent reform discussion is not just between the high technology and pharmaceutical industries. It is also about the future of American innovation including high-tech, biotech and the area that is even more critical to America: energy – what we call “cleantech.” Cleantech is the fastest growing sector of business and of venture investment. The same venture capitalists who led the successful creation of the high-tech and biotech industries are now poised to lead the way in developing new clean technologies.

The issue we need to collectively explore is how to protect the truly pioneering inventions that we all want to see, such as San Diego-based Sapphire Energy’s carbon neutral crude oil. This is a true breakthrough, made by harnessing the energy from the sun and capturing carbon dioxide, to grow algae on non-agricultural land using non-potable water to make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Pioneering cleantech inventions require a huge investment upfront, and rely solely on original intellectual property protection to negotiate with corporate partners – some of the largest corporations in the world. By their very nature these inventions change entrenched industries and markets, and take orthogonal approaches to intractable societal problems. These are not inventions that large corporations are incented to make. They require the small business, entrepreneurial risk-taking component of our economy. … Next Page »

Robert Nelsen is a co-founder and a Managing Director of ARCH Venture Partners. He focuses on biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnology. Follow @

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