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31 July 2017

Big deal: Aarhus University foregoes patents

The institution has partnered a range of Danish corporates to conduct basic research and publish the results for anyone to use.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

Aarhus University announced today it has launched its Open Science platform, which will publish fundamental research conducted in partnership with corporations without any patents attached to it.

Supported by a DKr2.5m ($390,000) investment from business-focused philanthropic organisation Danish Industry Foundation, the project aims to tackle obstacles that currently make it difficult and expensive for companies to access basic academic research that could be of high value to them.

The university is set to launch individual platforms for specific fields of research – the first Open Science directory, Spoman, will focus on smart polymer materials and nano-composites. Spoman features twenty companies, such as toymaker Lego, and researchers at Aarhus’ chemistry, physics and engineering departments as well as faculty from other Danish universities.

The approach is certainly novel, but more than that could prove transformational.

Niels Christian Nielsen, dean of science and technology at Aarhus University, said: "Public and private institutions and foundations protect their research investments by focusing on safe bets – either by favouring applied research with a high probability of commercial success, or by ensuring that our research centres keep to clearly defined benchmarks that control the flow of funds and time – but do not allow room to explore unexpected opportunities that arise during the process.

"The paradox seems to be that we do not like investing in unorthodox or complex ideas because of the high risk that they will not eventuate. At the same time, however, society cannot afford to turn our universities into factories that are occupied with small and self-evident ideas.”

The initiative is particularly relevant in Denmark, where researchers and grant givers have increasingly moved towards projects considered to be safe bets, rather than supporting proposals that may not present any immediate benefits but could bring enormous value in the long-term.

It is important to note here that, while the research published on the platform cannot be patented, products developed with that knowledge can be. The aim, after all, is to boost innovation in the country.

Open Science itself is also not protected as an idea – other universities and corporates may develop their own approach and the platform’s partners hope it will be copied elsewhere. Indeed, Aarhus hopes the idea will take hold much like crowdfunding or open source have.

With Danish industry so far proving keen on the platform, as it means they can undertake research without having to spend resources on protecting the resulting intellectual property, it seems likely that the concept could find friends in other countries, too.

Kim Daasbjerg, professor at Aarhus’ Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center, who instigated Open Science and will be responsible for the platform, said: "Open Science will be a playground where companies and universities can try out their ideas without taking major risks.

“They can venture out of their normal surroundings and try new things relatively risk-free. This is particularly interesting for SMEs, only a few of which are experienced in research-based development.

“And because participants in the Open Science platform have access to the latest university research, they can acquire a basis for creating unique products with increased market potential.”

Interestingly, Open Science is also a conscious rebellion against scientific journals, which have high subscription fees attached that need to be paid even by universities who provide the content. Journals can also assume copyright over any published article, meaning researchers cannot freely share their findings elsewhere.

Mads Lebech, chief executive of Danish Industry Foundation, described Open Science thus: "This contributes to the innovative power of the companies, and can also help to boost interaction between researchers, students and the companies involved.

“By creating a platform that structures knowledge sharing in a way that deals with a number of practical and legal challenges, it will also be possible for smaller companies to be involved – companies that have historically encountered financial or cultural barriers regarding collaboration and the sharing of data and knowledge.”

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