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While I understand this is not a legal help site and it may differ from university to university, I am curious if anyone has any thoughts on this.

I am in an undergraduate programme in a life sciences-related field. My friend and I have an idea for a genetically modified organism product that we would like to bring to market.

We plan to make the full product elsewhere, but we need a proof of concept which we could easily create in the lab we both work in, just using leftover chemicals/DNA that would be disposed of if not for us using it. We simply want to create one organism to prove it could work, so we can then get evidence and support to complete the project elsewhere.

However would there be legal ramifications for just making the proof of concept in this lab?

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    Are you fine with the university claiming intellectual property rights? Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 0:07
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    And if you're going to ask about the law, you'll have to name a jurisdiction. Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 0:07
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    Universities usually claim patent rights on things created there. There is also the issue of safety, not just of law.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 0:08
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    What Buffy is saying is that if you create a GMO with university resources, likely the university could claim to own the GMO.
    – Dawn
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 0:34
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    You probably need approval from higher up in the university to try anything using DNA.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 1:13

6 Answers 6

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I would offer a more general guideline: if you are using someone else's resources in any capacity whatsoever, it is only prudent to negotiate in advance what happens to the products of your work.

This applies not only to startups, but also to publishing results of your previous work without giving any measurable return on investment (affiliations, co-authorships) to the lab you performed it in.

It is exceedingly rare for the work to be blocked altogether, because then no one wins, everyone loses. The crucial detail here is both sides explicitly agreeing that the deal is fair. It need not be purely monetary, either, but IP has value.

Look at it from a managerial perspective: you take in taxpayer dollars and produce something of value to the taxpayers. Overseeing agencies like to see funding statements on all the things the lab has produced, and they are often fairly specific. As a manager, I get a pat on the back for the lab being efficient, and am generally interested in you doing cool things with the equipment which taxpayers could perceive as a good use of their money. If you do not provide me with grounds to say "hey taxpayers, we did this, is this not great?", then for all I care, you just took the money and ran off. Not great. There is another caveat, too - like BillOnne points out, if something unethical or substandard happens on my watch, I am liable for that and very much not happy about it!

All in all, you should do everything completely above the table, and it may mean jumping through more hoops than otherwise. But these hoops are in place for a good reason.

Indeed, you face a risk of investors clawing back a lot of your hard-earned money, but "either you get a little, or no one gets anything" is not too bad of a negotiating position. There are, indeed, businesses which became successful because of appropriating something valuable at the start, but doing so sneakily is certainly not the way to go.

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  • I agree strongly with this answer, not least because this may vary widely according to circumstances: What country, what research outputs, what discipline, what lab in a given university, maybe even what piece of equipment depending on how the equipment was funded. (I am sure I am not the only person who has overheard enterprising young undergrads and grad students suggesting bitcoin mining operations thinly disguised as 'research projects' using federally funded equipment....)
    – Anonymous
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 0:15
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Apart from the legality of who owns the product, and the issue of using the resources and equipment without permission, there are other considerations.

You would be doing biological research. You give very little detail other than potentially a novel GMO is involved.

Usually such things have at least a minimal review for ethics and safety before they start. Possibly it would be fairly trivial, depending on what actions you were considering. But there are MANY bilogical processes that the university would be maximally upset to find out you had done without the review in advance. And in the most extreme cases, they could be induced to come after you with legal consequences.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 20:57
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You would need to negotiate an intellectual property agreement with the university's technology transfer office (and other interested parties). Regardless of legal necessity, if you want investors to put money into your business, you should have that agreement available for the investor to examine.

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    The technology transfer office is not there to get money from you right now. They want your business succeed, which makes them look good and maybe gets them a much more substantial amount of money in the distant future. They probably know who would like to invest in your business. Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 0:41
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State universities in the US have a mandate to support and foster the local economy by developing research and technologies that can be economically exploited. If you have a good idea, the university might be quite open to it.

However, you need to go through the proper channels in order to use university resources. First step would be to talk to the supervisor of the laboratory, who would also be more familiar about the procedures that need to be followed. You might also want to write up your idea beforehand in as much detail as you can muster and have someone else sign each page, as it is not unheard of for discussion about priorities etc. to ensue later.

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This is not a legal help site, and the only correct answer is to find a competent IP lawyer in your jurisdiction to review your contract with your university. It is very possible that using university resources to create new IP would result in you losing some or all of your IP rights, so this is not something you want to take lightly if you ever hoped to start a business or sell your idea. Even just having doubts about the legal ownership of your IP could be enough to make it effectively worthless.

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This is not a direct answer to your question, but apropos this topic, you might be interested to note that Noam Chomsky has written a lot about how various industries have used the university system as a source of tax-funded research whose products they then privatise for their own firms (for a gentle introduction, see one of his talks on this topic). This is particularly common in military research but it also occurs in technological fields across many industries. So, the cynic in me says: the legality of this practice depends on your ability to use the political system to do it at scale.

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