Richard Jefferson: Biological Open Source

As you know, our lecture series this season focuses on innovation for public good. It’s hard to talk about innovative ways to solve today’s problems without delving into the realm of open source. For many, this brings to mind free sharing of computer source code that has exploded with the rise of the internet. However, the process of providing access to an end product’s source material can be applied in numerous fields including government, media, culture, arts, and sciences.

Monday’s (Mar 28) talk, “Enabling Innovation,” with Richard Jefferson will focus on his efforts to promote an open source approach in biotechnology. In an interview published in this spring’s volume of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jefferson discusses today’s dominant model of creating biologically-based products, which is largely controlled by large corporations. This model stifles innovation by incentivizing the “blockbuster” mentality — inventing a new product to sell to the highest bidder — a process that cuts out small to medium enterprises that can bring a great deal of creativity to the table. This, according to Jefferson, “makes for a pretty constipated ecology.”

So, what do we do about the elephant (Monsanto) in the room?

Here is where Jefferson’s many initiatives come into play. Cambia, an independent non-profit institute, creates new scientific tools that enable scientists to better understand living systems. By involving a wider group of players through the elimination of barriers such as access to capital and prohibitive patents, Cambia is encouraging solutions for the localized and scaled-down problems, not just the blockbusters.

Cambia’s recent efforts, the Patent Lens and Initiative for Open Innovation (IOI), are aimed at making the innovation system more efficient and navigable. In an age of information, we need a way to transform “information through thought processes and creative innovation into new value” — a conversion process that needs publicly available maps, or innovation cartography.

We look forward to hearing Jefferson talk Monday, March 28 about innovation cartography and how it is helping to enable innovation for public good.


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