As COVID-19 infiltrates every aspect of our daily lives and the world races to respond and to address the pandemic, there is a consistent theme which offers all of us hope. Collaboration. To combat the outbreak, we have seen the emergence of large numbers of companies joining to pool their resources and to cross-share their valuable know-how.
Whether it is University College London and Mercedes F1 collaborating to make a breathing aid for COVID-19 patients, or pharma giants, including Sanofi and Gilead, sharing their proprietary libraries of molecular compounds as part of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, to develop vaccines, we are seeing increasing numbers of proactive collaborations.
Sharing or pooling technologies and R&D is evidently the fastest route to develop solutions to mitigate and to overcome the effects of the virus. The alternative is that companies seek to monopolise their proprietary technology or states prioritise use of key technologies for their own populations. Following rumours that the US may be attempting to acquire control of a vaccine being developed by the German biopharma group CureVac and now reports that President Trump may block the export of protective masks and other medicinal products from the US to Canada, there was a wave of concern that this protectionist approach could be adopted by other countries. The widespread view is that this approach would be to the detriment of fighting the pandemic, with leaders across the globe calling for collective action and a sharing of resources.
In late 2019, weeks before COVID-19 first emerged, we published our 'Open Innovation: Collaborate to Innovate' Report. This concluded that technology is connecting individuals and businesses across sectors and it is easier than ever before for anyone, anywhere, to innovate. That being said, collaboration is often not used to its full potential. The benefits of collaborating to innovate are clear, as we explore in the Report, but this often requires a change in the mind-set of a company which may usually seek to protect its own valuable IP. Sometimes, however, when push comes to shove change is forced. With all eyes upon governments and know-how rich companies, many of these businesses have stepped up to the plate to come together to tackle COVID-19, with the result that collaborations are springing up at an unprecedented rate and in unexpected places. Unsurprisingly, the highest number of new partnerships appears to be in the pharmaceutical sector, with companies here seeking to combine their capabilities and know-how to accelerate the development and manufacture of diagnostics and vaccine technologies. Please see here our blog post ‘COVID-19: Collaboration is key in the race of develop a vaccine’ which addresses collaboration in the context of vaccine development. However, as the UCL and Mercedes F1 partnership demonstrates, collaborations are by no means unique to this area and are spanning industries, technologies and sectors. These collaborations will all require an effective legal, logistical and perhaps even cultural framework, in order for them to be successful and fruitful, both short-term and potentially longer-term. Many businesses have already embraced this more open way of working together in this time of crisis, dispensing with the traditional checks and balances upon external collaborations.
If this can be achieved, then COVID-19 may be a catalyst leading, not just to the supply of immediate life-saving clinical and medical treatment, but also to open innovation being fully embraced more widely across business and with society able to reap its rewards more generally.
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© Herbert Smith Freehills 2021