Innovation in the Time of COVID-19

The bromide “invention is the mother of necessity” is so overused it is practically wrung of meaning, but the race to invent ways to combat COVID-19 is giving it renewed relevance.

Innovation can come in many forms, including new drug and vaccine development, medical equipment manufacturing improvements, or new testing protocols.

Given the urgency for battling the pandemic, health officials are also turning to advances from “big data/big computing” for contact tracing and forecast modeling to help understand how the disease is spreading and how to slow it. Contact tracing, enabled by the ubiquitous smartphone, not surprisingly, brings into sharp focus the privacy, institutional and corporate trust concerns that remain broadly unresolved.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analyses, which will undoubtedly play a role in this battle, flow from the computing innovations that delivered the smartphone and all its consumer conveniences. A lot of the world’s human and monetary capital over the last two decades have fueled this big-computing/data revolution, some of which has been employed for medical innovation.

Innovations in medical, pharmaceutical and medical device design and manufacturing are now taking the center stage that has been mostly occupied by computing advances (and, yes, those advances are not necessarily mutually exclusive). In this moment, the world desperately needs advances, knowledge and resources from all disciplines and sources. Those sources include industry, academia, government, health institutions, individual scientists and those with the deepest of pockets.

The alarms are now blaring, and the scramble is on. Long-standing prescribed research methodologies are being weighed against unprecedented urgency. Haste will surely lead to some unintended consequences—be they harmful or beneficial.

Inventors are typically rewarded for their efforts with ownership of their intellectual property (IP). For academia, rewards come in the form of prestige and university tenure, as well as some financial rewards for university “tech transfer” programs. Financial rewards are the incentives for industry.

As the pandemic has touched on all facets of life, it will also touch on intellectual property ownership. In fact, there are several initiatives designed to expedite solutions to combat COVID-19 by asking inventors and patent owners to make some concessions to IP rights (reported by Louis Carboneau of Tangible IP). Those include a call for a COVID-19 pledge where pledge signers agree to not charge royalties for COVID-19 related IP and a draft bill from U.S. Congress that would temporarily suspend some IP rights (including exclusion rights) during the U.S. government’s declaration of emergency.

Here, a careful balance between removing speed barriers and maintaining some incentive for the investment will require careful calibration. We won’t know if we struck the right balance until the crisis abates and the history is written. Right now, the stakes couldn’t be higher and the human desire to create and invent is one of the best tools we have.