Integrated Human Practices:
Ethics and Entrepreneurship
Bridging Design and Implementation
In our interviews on the Human Practices page, we were able to understand and gain perspective on how we should design our product, and how we should implement it. But this analysis would be incomplete without considering the role of entrepreneurship in bridging our product design and implementation plan. Entrepreneurship is the process of taking what we have designed, and moving it towards implementation. We know how we want to implement, now the question is how to we get to the point where we can actually execute that plan? What model is going to be the most likely to get us to the implementation stage?
This page is an analysis documenting our thought process as we considered the most ethical entreprenurial path forward.
Ethical Analysis: Crafting An Entrepreneurial Model
Our team has currently secured funding to continue developing SEED through the end of 2020, possibly further, with four members continuing to work full-time on the project through the Fall Quarter. We are very excited to develop the technology further and potentially bring SEED to market as a product designed for clinical and/or at-home settings. But when the idea first floated around that we should file a patent on the technology, we asked ourselves the question: what benefit would we get from owning the intellectual property? One of our motivations in making the technology was that anybody could use the genetic constructs and transform them into cells to get their very own test kit, and we were worried that in patenting the technology, we would prevent Citizen Scientists from using our technology and helping us spread it across the world. Another question we asked ourselves was: what type of organization should we form to develop and implement the technology? Do we want to incorporate a company, start a nonprofit, stay as we are but license our patent rights to other companies to develop and distribute for us? Or do we simply want to try to publish our work in an academic journal for others to build off of later? Our decision to file a provisional patent was ultimately informed by an in-depth consideration of if that patent would help us to realize our goals and encompass our team's values.
Availability: Making our technology available to anyone around the world that needs it.
Replication: Allowing bioengineering and biohackers anywhere to recreate our diagnostic on their own.
Longevity: Sustaining the development of the technology for the longest time possible.
Innovation: Encouraging innovation and improvements on the technology, from our team and others.
Impact: Turning this project idea into something deliverable; a product that people can actually benefit from.
In making the decision of whether or not to file for a patent (as opposed to making the technology open-source), we came across two main value tensions that we had to resolve.
1. Innovation and Long-Term Development vs. Availability and Replication: Filing a patent with the possibility of incorporating ourselves into a startup would create a for-profit incentive structure that would increase innovation and the longevity of our technological development. However, because the IP would not be open-source, filing could decrease the general availability of our technology and prevent Citizen Scientists from replicating our protocols to recreate our diagnostic.
2. Optimizing for wealthy vs. less-privileged communities: In looking at the different settings we could apply our technology in, it seems as though a startup would be ideal in settings where the consumers are more well-off (first world countries, wealthier communities) where the test would most likely be used clinically, however for settings where consumers are less privileged, implementation could be more difficult with a company. This is because a startup would only have a limited ability to distribute tests, and so it is unlikely that countries or communities without as much wealth would be feasible to expand a business into. So while patenting and incorporating could result in more availability and impact in countries like the US, developing nations would not be able to benefit as much, and we could ultimately end up decreasing overall impact if we monopolize the technology.
Ultimately, we believe that obtaining a patent and protecting the intellectual property of our creation is the most ethical way path forward, because it maximizes each of our values. However, it is crucial to us that we file the patent while also reserving the right to provide the technology for free to anyone we want to give it to. This model is the most ethical way to go because it preserves the for-profit incentive structure that will result in more investors and faster innovation (that will ultimately help more people), while also allowing the technology to be open-source with the consent of our (not yet established!) company. In addition to filing for a patent, we also believe that, in order to allow future expansion of the work, it would be ideal to publish into the academic sphere with our methods and possible improvements, in addition to this wiki.
Our aim is to maximize the amount of good we are doing in the world, by enabling the most amount of people to benefit from our diagnostics technology. We ultimately want to do that by causing the following things to happen.
Encouraging Innovation and Future Development.....
We want to be able to keep working on developing this technology for as long as possible, and sustain our own innovation for the project, so that we can develop different types of viral tests, get RNA competence and detection working, and refine the biotechnology. We also want to modify the detection mechanism in our cells to be developed for many different sequences, not just one (such as COVID). In order to optimize these goals, owning intellectual property and operating on a for-profit business model would be ideal. This is because if we were running on a Citizen Science model, or even as a nonprofit organization, it would be difficult to get funding from investors to continue developing the technology. It would also be less feasible for team members to continue working on the project. During the Fall Quarter, half of our team (Chris, Lauren, Jordan, Sarah) opted not to enroll in classes at Stanford in order to focus full-time on developing SEED, with funding and advising from Stanford Medicine's Catalyst Program. But this was conditional on the guarantee for researcher compensation. Without it, we would not have been able to continue developing our technology full-time, or with the enthusiasm and dedication we are able to currently.
So, if our goal is to promote innovation and to prolong the development of our technology as long as possible, then we should adopt a for-profit model going forward - this will allow us to improve and refine the product, and increase the likelihood of us getting to the implementation stage.
.....While Guaranteeing Widespread Availability and Replication.....
We want hundreds (in not thousands) of people and labs around the world to be able to grow up the cells, free of charge. We do not want to create an unreasonable cost barrier to our technology, so that we can allow the most people possible to use our technology. Ideally, it would be distributed for free, or for just enough to maintain the incentive structure that results in innovation and development. But it would be wrong of us to try to charge higher than necessary for SEED - at least, to an unreasonable extent - because we would be prioritizing profit over benefit to public health. How can we reconcile needing a for-profit business model in order to sustain development and innovation, with wanting to make the technology free and available in a widespread manner? As it turns out, there are not mutually exclusive. When filing for a patent, the inventors reserve the right to license it to anyone they wish, or to allow anyone to use their technology free of charge. When we filed our provisional patent, we made sure of this.
The next question might be, if we are planning to distribute the technology for free to anyone who asks, how can we continue to have a business? We asked ourselves the same question as we thought through this. But what we ended up concluding is that people don't always want what is free if they have to put in effort to use it. They would much rather pay money for an item that is ready and easy to use, as opposed to getting the item for free but needing to prepare it before use. For example, any of us can grow vegetables in our backyard for free and, if we do it enough, save a lot of money. However despite this, most people prefer to go to the store to buy their vegetables already grown and fresh, because they are paying not for the item itself, but the ease of use. So, just because something is available for free does not mean you can't sell it.
It is in this way that we reconcile the uses in what we would normally think of as "first-world" or wealthier settings with the uses in what we would think of as less-privileged ones, where business infrastructure night be less developed. We can have a for-profit business organization that develops a product to sell to consumers - the product not being the cells engineered with our SEED system inside, but the user-friendly, at-home or clinical kit with a simple instruction manual. And in addition to that, we can also offer the technology for free - making the plasmids available online for people to order, transform, and grow up themselves if they want.
....and Maximizing Each Of Our Values.
By doing what we outlined above - become entrepreneurs based a for-profit model selling test kits, while also making the technology open-source - we will maximize the values that were outlined in the beginning: availability, replication, longevity, innovation, and impact. After conducting this in-depth ethical analysis around entrepreneurship, our team is now confident that we can have an ethical business model moving into the startup phase of our development. We also feel more comfortable with handling the tensions between creating for-profit startup and making our technology widely available.