Innovation Sails Free; the Open-Source Notion Is Moving beyond Guerrilla Software. Could It Lead to Cheaper Pharmaceuticals?
Miller, Karen Lowry, Newsweek
Byline: Karen Lowry Miller
Windsurfers in Hawaii might not seem to have much in common with the geeks who these days tinker with Linux software as part of the open-source movement. But in the late '70s, the surfers freely swapped ideas on how to redesign their equipment right on the beach, and sporting-goods makers were quick to pick up on innovations like foot straps for leaping giant waves.
Linux's success is making freely revealed innovation a hot idea again. After decades in which patents closed off innovation, open source has caught the attention of businesses because "it so violated accepted wisdom and so clearly worked," says Yochai Benkler, a Yale scholar. Giants like IBM and HP, and newcomers like Red Hat, have made lots of money on Linux-based services and equipment.
Pharmaceuticals represent one new and surprising area where freely shared innovation is catching on. Most industry profits have been made from expensive patented drugs. But now the BioBricks project at MIT is trying to establish standardized tools and processes for research. That way, researchers from everywhere can contribute. Open innovation also makes sense in industries where patents aren't relevant--for example, finding new uses for existing drugs. Eric Von Hippel, MIT's head of innovation and entrepreneurship, is studying FDA applications since 1998 for these so-called off-label uses of patented drugs to see whether, as he suspects, they come mostly from independent researchers rather than the big drugmakers holding the original patents. …