Innovating for the whole world: IP’s role in development

Author:Aline Flower
Position:Associate General Counsel, Global Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What could intellectual property (IP) possibly have to do with helping the poorest people in the world’s least developed countries? At first blush, the concepts of IP and development seem diametrically opposed. IP is often regarded as the manifestation of sophisticated legal infrastructures created by wealthy nations to incentivize innovation and mobilize advanced economies.


Yet, closer analysis reveals intimate and nuanced connections between IP and development, touching both micro- and macro-economic issues, including:

Which people are served by commercial markets and which ones are not?

The role for the private sector in development?

How can research, development, and delivery for a particular product be driven where the product’s ultimate consumers are poor people in poor countries?

IP has a place in each of these analyses. Wherever poverty, hunger, or disease, require innovative solutions, IP may have everything to do with development.

In some cases, the product needed already exists, and its surrounding IP is well-protected in developed world jurisdictions. In these cases, the international development challenge may involve distributing that product in the poor world. In other cases, an existing product may need to be adapted and improved to better tailor its specifications to resource-constrained conditions or the preferences of the people living there. In yet another category, bold innovation may be called for to meet the needs of people in the poorest parts of the world to solve unique, unmet challenges.

Below are a few illustrations of how IP figures in development projects, along with insights into the approach of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to IP in development. In each case, a deliberate approach to IP is critical to ensuring the success of the project.

Existing products

Some of the most familiar examples of development involve interventions where the IP-protected product may already exist in its basic form and now needs to be made available to people in poor countries.

Gavi: existing vaccines

Gavi, “the Vaccine Alliance,” works to ensure that people in the developing world do not die of diseases that people in the developed world are routinely vaccinated against. Gavi is an international organization created in 2000 to improve access to underused (as well as new) vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries.

While IP issues may seem straightforward in a model that appears to rely exclusively on the procurement of existing product, that impression can be deceptive. IP issues abound in developing low-cost vaccines – particularly when it comes to in-licensing different viral strains from different entities and ensuring successful technology transfer.

Bold innovation

In other cases, brand new technologies are needed to improve the lives of people in low-resource settings. These technology solutions may also have market applications in rich world settings and, therefore, carry a high likelihood of new IP.

The reinvented toilet


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