CSIRO should follow Tesla's lead on patents

Making the CSIRO’s patent portfolio more accessible could be a boon for our small business and start-up sectors. It just might also provide the spark needed to ignite a domestic high-tech industry.

Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk's openness with patents just might hold some lessons for Australia and its quest to build domestic high-tech industries.

Musk announced last week that Tesla won’t enforce most of its patent claims against others in the field who are acting in good faith, the motivation for doing this is to encourage other companies to enter the field and grow the electric car industry.

In 2005, IBM made a similar move with 500 of its patents to help spur the growth of the open source software movement.

IBM and Tesla’s moves illustrate how the clever use of patents can spur growth and the reserves of intellectual property in Australia’s public institutions could provide a way for us to develop high tech industries.

Opening up CSIRO's treasure trove

The idea of making patents accessible to spur Australia’s economic growth was floated by Catapult Sports’ chairman Adir Shiffman at an Internet of Things (IoT) conference in Sydney three weeks ago, where he suggested making the CSIRO’s patent portfolio easy to access could boost the small business and start-up sectors.

Melbourne-based Catapult Sports is an example of how commercialised research can create a successful business. The company is one of the global leaders in sports performance technology, providing the monitoring units that can be seen tucked into the back of AFL players’ guernseys and in the ‘man bras’ of rugby league and union players.

These devices can track up to a thousand data points a second from each player and were the result of research at the Australian Institute of Sport over a decade ago and Shiffman is passionate about how technology patents are languishing in government agencies, particularly the CSIRO.

“The CSIRO’s technology is our technology, it's owned by people in this room and the other twenty five million Australians,” states Shiffman. “It’s our tax dollars that paid for the research – it’s not the CSIRO’s technology, it’s our technology to be commercialised for the benefit of Australia and Australians.”

“Quite simply there should be a standard agreement that anyone can sign with defined parameters about licensing costs, usage and some degree of exclusivity so any start-up that wants to access any technology from the CSIRO or any university or institution can sign that document and use the technology,” Shiffman added.

Finding what technology is available for licensing is another challenge for the committed business and Shiffman believes making that easy to find will help Australian business.  

“What we should be doing is create cutting edge companies that creating cutting edge jobs for Australians and make this a more innovative place. We can do that by making these technologies more accessible.”

The CSIRO currently has 350 active licenses, around 40 per cent of the organisation’s portfolio CSIRO's general manager of business development, Jan Bingley told Business Spectator.

Only a small amount of those licenses have been granted to companies that have approached the organisation. “The majority of CSIRO’s licensing activity is with our collaborators who work with us on the development of technology and on technology transfer and then take the license rights to go ahead and exploit the IP.”

The problem Bingley sees is that most of the technology is a long way from being commercialised.

“Our technology and patents are very early stage and a long way from realising commercial returns – we need to set expectations with potential interested parties so they understand this.” Bingley says, “However, if they remain interested then we can and do enter into simple licenses where the commercial terms are very generous and we seek to make a return only when the company starts realising returns.”

Small steps

For interested small to medium businesses, the CSIRO offers two programs –Australian Growth Partnerships, where an organisation takes a stake in high potential enterprises that are using the agency’s intellectual property, and the Technology Acceleration Fund. Both programs are a small but useful step in opening the organisation’s patent portfolio; many other research programs in universities, hospitals and other agencies are also developing patents that could deliver benefits for Australian businesses if commercialised.

Should we make these patents more accessible, the opportunities for Australian businesses are substantial.

Earlier this week, at the launch of London Tech Week, mayor Boris Johnson released a paper that predicts the tech sector will employ 46,000 workers in the city over the next ten years and add £12 billion to capital's economy.

As part of Johnson’s announcement eight major tech firms, including Microsoft, Virgin Media and Capgemini, pledged to take on nearly 2,000 new apprentices in London by 2016.

With the Australian Federal government’s promise to create a million jobs during its first term in government looking shaky, programs like London’s and the opening of the country’s patent portfolio are opportunities to drive employment in high tech industries.

If Australia can harness the patents and intellectual property locked away in the CSIRO and various other public bodies, it could give the country’s high tech industries the boost they need to compete in the 21st Century.

While Tesla motors is the sexy side of the patent battle, the example of Catapult Sports shows how the clever management of intellectual property rights can create global success stories, something Australian industry needs more of as the mining boom draws to a close.

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