Erik Stenehjem is Executive Director of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at Qatar Foundation. Before joining QF he was Executive Director of the Intellectual Property and Partnerships office at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for 6 years. He was also the Technology and Innovation Advisor to the governor of Oregon, and has always been engaged in understanding and modelling the development of knowledge-based economies.
Q: What does your role here at QF entail?
A: I came here was to build an intellectual property (IP) and commercialisation office that would be focused purely on creating the kind of wealth necessary to transition the economy from a dependence on petrochemicals, to a greater dependence on knowledge and innovation. This led us to explore the theories behind how that happens. It turns out that economic growth models have shown, over the course of the last 60 years, that technology innovation is not just a partial explanation of why growth occurs, it is the only explanation. When inventions arise from a society and those inventions are excludable, but non-rivalrous, they create wealth. And what I mean by that is when an invention arises that allows you to capture its use, such that you can charge economic rents, you can make profit from the use of that invention.
That stimulates further research, and that research leads to the virtuous cycle of ‘more innovation, more invention, more profit, more research’. The fact that those inventions are also non-rivalrous means that the owner of the invention can’t use it up. It has to be shared. Patents have that characteristic. If you invent something, and we put a patent on it, you could exclude others from using it and you have to reveal how you did it within 18 months. You have to make it public, so the body of knowledge continues to grow, as the beneficial virtuous cycle continues to spin. And knowing that, and knowing the factors behind how you stimulate that, is what underlies the policy for intellectual property that we developed here.
Q: So what is the model you adopted for IP here?
A: We started, not by emulating Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or Stanford, although we pay a lot of attention to the models they have developed because some of them have been very successful, but for a country like Qatar we asked whats really important here? Not how do you do it in England or the US, what do you need to do here to transform the economy? So thats sort of how we got to where we are. What we’ve done here thats different is we have created a string of support services for researchers that start from the research idea, all the way through to selling the results of that research. And along that continuum, I think the most important things we add is something called 'landscape analysis'.
One of the really interesting things about being at QF and working with the institutes and QNRF and the programs they sponsor, is the people who receive the funding are more or less free to do research that they direct. So if thats the case, why not direct that research in the areas that have the potential for great impact? We can do that with landscape analysis. For instance, if someone’s interested in researching solar, we can look at where all of the intellectual property from across the globe is, where its moving, where there gaps - what we call white spaces - and where there's an opportunity to connect these findings to direct the research to those spaces. Once we explain this process, we get an enormous amount of interest from researchers.
Q: What is the process that happens once some innovative research has been identified?
A: Tech transfer offices have moved on a lot in recent years and we have put together an incredible team of people who are highly skilled in being able to do landscape analysis and intellectual asset management analysis. You come to me and say ‘I’ve got this invention’ and we look at it and the claims you make about it, but you’re probably overlooking some things. You’ve probably got some more things in the process of your research that you don’t realise might be valuable. So we sit down with the researcher and go through an intellectual asset management process: What else have you discovered or uncovered? What capability have you built in the course of this process? Then we start to ferret that stuff out.
We’re going through a fascinating process right now, where we’re finding things the inventors had no idea of. So we look at those and say ‘those are real assets - some of those should be in a patent - some of those should be advertised as your unique capabilities’. We do this all the way through the process, from the moment you get your grant, or the moment you prepare a study plan for research - if you’re interested, that is. You don’t have to do this.
Q: So its the researchers who come to you?
A: Thats right. We just need to make them aware of the fact that we can do this for them if they care to.
Q: So if a researcher is working on something and they think it has some potential, they come to you?
A: The process we have created is one in which, if you’re researching and you believe you have identified something, you can fill in an online form called a QID - Qatar Invention Disclosure - and send it to us. We look at it and begin a process for each and every one of these. We have 160 right now. We evaluate them and see that it's a potential patent, maybe a copyright, but it's potentially going to be protected. The first thing we look at is - is there a reason to create a monopoly around this? The only reason would be, is there a market? So we do a comprehensive marketability analysis. Is this patentable? Or is this close to something thats already patented so that it would be considered obvious by a patent examiner? We look at patent-ability. The third thing we look at is strategic interest. It may be marginally patentable, it may not have any immediate marketability, but it may play into a portfolio of things that your research organisation is trying to build. In that case we patent it as well. So we look at those three things.
We then go to a team meeting. We bring in the inventor to talk about the invention, we bring in the inventor’s centre representative to talk about the strategic value of the thing - and also the technical aspects of the patent. We bring in the marketability expert, the patentability expert, and a commercialisation expert, and we talk about it. We would, and we do, at that stage - within 30-60 days after the invention disclosure has been submitted - never more than 60 days - at that stage we may go back to the inventor and say ‘you know what, we think there’s more here’. Or, because of the analysis we’ve done by that time, you know, if you bend your trajectory just a little bit, you might hit a sweet spot. Where you’re headed is where there is a lot of activity - a lot of stuff has been done, lots of patents, lots of patents field, but over here, not so much.
This round of grants will focus on viral diseases; the ones that were at the recent meeting on emerging viral diseases in the MENA region: hepatitis, HIV, coronavirus, flaviviruses, influenza, etc. The reason we limited it to those who participated, or people from participating institutions, is because we do not have that much money, and we want to limit the pool. There are two levels of the competition. Firstly, to participate in the meeting you had to submit an abstract, and that was reviewed by the scientific committee and then chosen for participation, and secondly, those who submit applications for these small grants will be reviewed by a committee that will be formed and managed by CRDF. In addition, both QF and NIH have been asked to submit names of possible reviewers, and it will be run very much like an NIH review, with identification of any conflicts of interest and a high level of rigour.
And it's fun! It's a fun, fun exercise.
Q: When a researcher has some interesting results, it is in their nature to want to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal. How do that affect the IP rights?
A: Badly. You have 10-15 countries in the world that will give you a break, but you’ve immediately lost the ability to patent and protect and reap the benefits from what you’ve invented in all of Europe and most of Asia.
The very first rule of a patent is that it has to be new. If it’s already been published, if I tell you, without a non-disclosure agreement, what the essence of my invention is, and they tell someone else, and they tell someone else, it’s published.
Q: So there’s a decision to be made about whether to publish first, or to investigate its IP potential?
A: Absolutely. The reason we're going around giving as many tutorials as we are is to make people aware of the fact that that’s really important. The researchers contact us and say, ‘I think I’ve got something here. I’m writing an abstract and sending it in’, and we say ‘Wait! We can help’, because we can put a provisional patent application in place within a week.
Q: In the case of QNRF-funded researchers working in collaboration with overseas colleagues, who owns the IP arising from that joint work?
A: The three pillars behind the IP policy we developed are: 1) If we pay for it (as QNRF), we’re going to have ownership rights. No ifs or buts, we are going to have ownership rights. 2) We support the researcher in developing research plans from cradle to grave. 3) We reward the researcher significantly, because we’re not trying to replace petrochemical dollars with IP revenues - that’s not going to happen.
The value of IP is what it adds to the portfolio of wealth for the country. You’re creating ideas that are compelling and known throughout the world. You become known for those ideas, you become a place where people will at least begin to cite what you had to say. They will seek you out as a collaborator in their research. We build a reputation and at the same time we’re looking to beneficially exploit what we’ve created. So if we can build businesses around the ideas, and not necessarily here, as long as some aspect of a new venture is in Qatar, its headquarters could be any place in the world. It’s throwing off economic value. The real value is creating the knowledge base.
Why do we do research? There has to be a relationship between the research we fund, and the knowledge-based economy. The nexus is the IP, the assets that are created as a result of that research. It’s recognition of what Qatar has done and where it is heading. We become a must-have in terms of research collaboration. It’s that that pays back.
In its broadest sense the QF IP policy says that if you are a non-Qatari research entity and you invent something that we pay for, we own it. But, we’re going to pay for all of the expenses of patenting it, all the expenses of commercialising it, and we’re going to give you half of everything we get. This is a much better deal for most universities across the globe. In most universities almost every patent they ever register costs them more than they will ever make. So we pay for that and its risk-free for them. Its very attractive for most universities, especially US universities.
If you’re a Qatari research entity, or Qatar University, and you invent something that we pay for, we jointly own it. With the adaptation of the policy to the branch campuses and other folks, QNRF sub-awardees from other places, we’ve had no trouble.
Q: Are there any success stories you could share?
A: There are several. We have a petrochemical services company who has taken a technology invented by TAMUQ and it looks like there could be a long-term relationship there. There are several technologies that are being used such as Arab language translation technology, sort of an e-book reader, that’s being used by 40,000 students in Qatar at the present time. So there are things that are beginning to happen. We’re currently in the process of actively commercialising 50 different ideas. We have 160 invention disclosures in various forms of protection, some are just beginning the patenting process, some are intermediate in that process, and there are some that have been patented. We’re getting more and more disclosures every month. Last year there were a total of 31 disclosures, but as of December 2014, halfway through the fiscal year, there were already 31, so we’re expecting 60 by the end of the fiscal year. It’s very heartening to see that people are putting in disclosures. It's also interesting to see that we’re getting disclosures from Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell, Texas A&M , VCU - from the branch campuses - and we’ve never had those before, so it’s working really well.
Q: If you look ahead five years, what would this department look like?
A: In five years, I see this organisation completely woven into the research process in Qatar Foundation. I see our commercialisation managers interacting on a very regular basis with investors in Silicon Valley and in London. I see us reaching out to develop and promote investment opportunities for research here. Within five years my guess is that Qatar Foundation and the HBKU institutes themselves will be attracting maybe 30% of the funding needed to do their work.
We will attract the world to the research work that we’re doing here. That will be the success story. By going out and proselytising and commercialising the work that we’re doing, by showing the market that this has value, we will bring the market to Qatar. That’s where I see us in five years time.
Thank you, Erik for your time and you insights into how QF is safeguarding its future through the exploitation of home-grown research.
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