Why protect your intellectual property?

Conducting research requires time, resources, and perseverance. But in the end, the search for grant or funding opportunities, laboratory experiments, literature reviews, and writing reports and journal article off-shoots, the meetings in between may all be worth it since your output would have public use. You find rest and peace of mind knowing that you have a meaningful contribution to knowledge and social action.

That is, if no one passes off your work as theirs.

Intellectual property as a right

Any creation of the mind expressed into tangible assets fall under intellectual property (IP). If you finish writing a novel or invented a new farming technology, that is your IP. But for any research output accomplished using the resources of state universities like UPLB, the IP belongs to the university, although the researcher still holds a right over it.

Owning an IP gives you legitimate right to use it. Unlike literary and artistic works that are automatically protected upon creation, technologies must be applied with suitable IP protection, usually with patent or utility model, to avoid IP theft.

According to the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines (IPOPHIL), IP has been a recognized property right in the Philippines as early as the Spanish period. In the 1940s, two laws establishing a patent office and allowing trademark registration were enacted. Since then, the Philippine government has gradually strengthened the IP system and consolidated all IP laws under Republic Act 8293 or IP Code in 1998, which all IP policies are based on.

As a premier university, UPLB is a breeding ground of quality research in agriculture, biotechnology, engineering, plant breeding, forestry, and nanotechnology. Most of its research findings are published in reputable journals while some are translated to novel technologies with practical uses, like biofertilizers, farming equipment, or improved crop varieties.

While the university wants the public to immediately use these technologies, it also has to protect its resources and personnel from unscrupulous organizations and individuals which aim to benefit from already innovative products. Hence, the UPLB Technology Transfer and Business Development Office (TTBDO) continues to assist students and researchers in protecting their works. Since 2000, TTBDO has filed around 180 IP applications, the majority of which are patents and copyrights.

Improving R&D through licensing

In 2017, 17 UPLB technologies were able to qualify for commercialization, UPLB’s highest number of patent approval since 2000.

Dr. Susan Mercado’s Microbial Rennet is one of the 17 technologies. Dr. Mercado is a researcher from the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) and her technology is a milk coagulant or rennet substitute used in cheese making.

She applied for a patent in 1997 because, as she explained, “everyone was doing it then.” However, her application had already expired and so she reapplied in 2010 but unfortunately, a lot of necessary documents were lost in the process. “It was challenging then, but perhaps the process is improving now,” Dr. Mercado said of her experience in filing the patent for her technology.

Although the Microbial Rennet has yet to be granted a patent, it is essentially protected because of the ‘ first-tofile’ provision of the Philippine Intellectual Property Code.

While waiting for the IPOPHIL’s decision, Dr. Mercado opted to license Microbial Rennet for a private company called Aust-Phil Food Manufacturing Corporation.

She met representatives of Aust-Phil in 2012 when the latter wanted to purchase rennet. At first, Dr. Mercado supplied them with small frequent orders of Microbial Rennet but eventually, Aust-Phil wanted to license the technology so they can produce it in their manufacturing plant.

They submitted a Letter of Intent in 2014 to UPLB. However, it took another three years to finally begin its commercialization. TTBDO helped Dr. Mercado with the patent application, negotiations with AustPhil, and by submitting the documents required for state-funded technologies before it can be transferred to a private company. In 2018, along with the 16 other UPLB technologies, Microbial Rennet was licensed to Aust-Phil for mass production.

Currently, Aust-Phil has a laboratory complete with equipment to produce Microbial Rennet inside its plant. Dr. Mercado has also trained the company’s staff in producing the rennet. They had three trial runs before the production process finally settled.

“We have a good working relationship and regular communication. If there are problems, Aust-Phil consults me,” Dr. Mercado said. When asked if she is willing to produce the Microbial Rennet herself, Dr. Mercado said she considered but decided against it because of the challenges. “I cannot easily produce rennet. I don’t have manpower. I have limited working space and use defective equipment. I could not scale up the production. At Aust-Phil, they own a laboratory.”

After years of seemingly endless meetings and submission of documents, Dr. Mercado is satisfied with the state of her technology.

“Something came out of my ideas, my years of research,’’ she said.

Researchers as licensees

Aside from licensing technologies to private companies, researchers can also commercialize their own inventions through spin-off. The researcher can either act as a consultant to a spin-off firm or create a company to market the technology, just like what Dr. Virginia Padilla did.

Dr. Padilla is a recently retired researcher from BIOTECH. With the hope of helping farmers, she developed Nutrio, which is a microbial-based foliar biofertilizer that promotes plant growth and replaces up to 50% of the required chemical fertilizer for eggplant and sugarcane.

Farmers have also tried it on mahogany, rambutan, lanzones, durian, cucumber, cassava, and palay.

Dr. Padilla applied for Nutrio’s patent on 2017 which is now pending approval. Its trademark has already been granted and the product has been registered with the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority. Nutrio is also one of the 17 technologies that were submitted for commercialization in 2017. But unlike Dr. Mercado, Dr. Padilla chose to license her own technology through a spin-off to continue her commitment in bringing Nutrio to the public after she retired.

When she received the signed licensing agreement, she and her husband created a small family corporation called Fulmight Agricultural Corporation to market and distribute Nutrio.

However, starting a business proved to be hard for Dr. Padilla. During TTBDO’s Technology Transfer Day in November 2018, she recalled her spin-off experience.

“It is a long process to spin-off the product for commercialization…I even wondered if this would ever get approved. It was difficult to register in the Securities and Exchange Commission because of the long queue and vague instructions. We had to come back to and fro. After that, we needed to have barangay clearance, mayor’s permit, and Bureau of Internal Revenue registration.”

And unlike the laboratory for Microbial Rennet which was built by Aust-Phil, Dr. Padilla had to build one by using her own resources. She asked government agencies for financial help but they required at least three years of experience of operation to qualify for a loan.

Despite these difficulties, Dr. Padilla is persistent to finish what she started, especially with the support from UPLB TTBDO, Department of Science and Technology, and from farmers who are pleased with the promising results of Nutrio.”

These days, she is conducting field trials in various farms to improve Nutrio. The trials have been effective in promoting her technology to end-users. She remains steadfast in her goal, taking one step at a time to commercialize her technology.

Supporting tech-generating research

It can be challenging to protect and commercialize a technology. Dr. Mercado and Dr. Padilla can attest to that, but the outcomes of their hard work may all be worth it.

For instance, Dr. Mercado’s Microbial Rennet is licensed for five years by Aust-Phil, a food manufacturing company who has space and resources that enabled them to build a laboratory for rennet production.

Aust-Phil also paid a licensing fee to UPLB, which can be allocated for new R&D projects in the university. In the next few years, they will pay royalties that will be distributed to UPLB, BIOTECH, and Dr. Mercado as the inventor.

The money will serve as additional R&D funds and as an incentive for Dr. Mercado’s work. And because Microbial Rennet is cheaper than existing milk coagulants, the cheese that Aust-Phil produces becomes more affordable to consumers. Indeed, something came out of her ideas, her years of research.

As for Dr. Padilla, we have yet to see the fruits of her labor. But her technology is gradually gaining traction in the market as she conducts field trials. As long as she maintains her resolve, Nutrio will serve its purpose -- to help Filipino farmers and the sugarcane industry.

Dr. Mercado and Dr. Padilla chose two different paths of commercializing their technologies, but both of them delivered the same meaningful contribution to knowledge and social action. And it became possible because their intellectual properties are protected. ■

This article was published at RDE Digest Vol 11 No. 1 (2019).