But The Man can't bust our music

19 October 2008

Almost 40 years ago, Columbia Records tried to cash in on the Californian counterculture with the slogan "But The Man can't bust our music". The record company "wasn't like the others", it wanted everyone to know. It was different. Then the company released the first Chicago album after demanding a royalty cut because it was too long. And it didn't take long for MOR syndrome to take over.

At the Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference I wondered what slogan the venture capitalists might adopt as they try to entice researchers to create bioengineering startups to follow in the wake of Amyris Biotechnologies. Many of those researchers have bought into a technological counterculture where community spirit and an open source ethos rule. And, at the least for the moment, the VCs are singing the same song.

Talli Somekh of Musea Ventures presented himself as a former "activist for open source" who was behind the synthetic-biology community's plans to try to prevent its inventions from being locked up behind patent firewalls.

But the spectre of Dr Evil was there too. Drew Endy of Stanford University, who is trying to set up a non-profit 'biofab' in the Bay Area worried aloud about how such an institute might deal with industry aka EvilCo.

Jim Thomas of Canadian pressure group ETC was keen to talk to the bioengineers' better nature. However, it's worth noting that Thomas wants the work on synthetic biology banned because of its potential for commercialisation. He argued: "One big change in this community is the change in who you are. How the synthetic biology community looks at itself: A group of individuals trying to work together in an ethical manner."

Thomas flashed up a Powerpoint slide stuffed full of company logos, all of them with some relationship to synthetic biology research: "For many of us in civil society to see an enterprise driven by this is a very big warning sign. It is no longer being driven by a number of well-meaning individuals."

Jack Wadsworth, honorary chairman Morgan Stanley Asia joked about being a member of a soon to be extinct breed: investment bankers. That probably wasn't the most reassuring thing he could have told the scientists as it put an increased sense of urgency on his desire to be associated with synthetic biology.

"I am convinced and even more so sitting here today. This field really is the next big thing," Wadsworth enthused, although he admitted that, until recently, he was among the nine out of ten US citizens who had never heard the term. "When explaining it to colleagues who didn't get it, I said if this works and produces energy from waste, we can drive the price of sugar and corn down while driving down the price of oil to $15 per barrel."

There is an issue of more direct concern to those working in the field: can they maintain a spirit of co-operation between groups that flies in the face of recent experience in bio-research, where patent lockouts reign supreme.

Wadsworth acknowledged: "There is a tension between the open architecture as manifested in BioBricks and what I heard people talk about on the importance of patent protection," Wadsworth added.

The people behind the BioBricks parts registry are trying to draft a new type of IP licence that will make it much tougher, or less attractive, for private companies to build up patent portfolios that can be used as weapons against other teams.

Advised by people such as Janet Hope, the author of Biobazaar, they are taking as their lead the copyleft regime championed by people in the open-source software community such as Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that the technology cannot be copyrighted, making patents one of the few pieces of law at their disposal. It ushers in the ugly and cognitively dissonant term "patentleft". But it's a term that underlines the community's problems in keeping openness alive as the money moves in.

Stephen Maurer of the Goldman School of Public Policy based at the University of California at Berkeley warned that the BioBricks group, or anyone else in the synthetic biology community with an interest in doing this, has only a limited time before some "Microbesoft" moves in.

"We believe that this [sector] will have a bigger GDP than software. It is possible to push for open standards. But this is a tipping market, so the need is very urgent. Amyris will have jet fuel [made using synthetic biology techniques] in 2011. It is a market that is maturing very rapidly. The train is leaving the station," argued Maurer.

The investors may make encouraging noises about openness in the early years as they hunt for groups to turn into spinouts. But the temptation to push for IP lockouts in the hope of pushing up valuations may be too much for them. And, like Columbia Records, turn out to be just like the rest.