Innovating for a better future
Article co-authored by Stéphane Drouin, Intellectual Property, and Véronique Toully, Sustainability
Today, all of us, not just those in the pharmaceutical industry, are engaged in a fight against a virus which has put a large part of our world on hold. Our industry is familiar with these kinds of fights, but the need for rapid reaction, the worldwide nature of the outbreak, and diagnosis challenges in this particular fight are a first for our era.
As a result, this pandemic has increased the visibility of many global challenges and we, as a company and as society, need to draw the lessons from this crisis and find the best ways to address these challenges together.
First, we are seeing that the human health and the environmental challenges we have to deal with are interdependent. This pandemic has once more put the spotlight on the extent to which we negatively impact our environment and conversely, the extent to which the imbalances we are creating in the environment can impact us. The concept and the need for a “One Health” approach has never been so relevant.
Recognising this interdependence, UCB, like many companies, began taking steps to minimize our environmental footprint several years ago. As a company, we have made progress, but there are still many hurdles on the road towards a green future for all. These call on the human brain to rethink the way we do just about everything and, critically, to come up with new and better ways of doing things. In one word, a green(er) future also calls for more innovation.
The past decade has seen a significant development of “green” technologies, for instance in the field of water cleansing and renewable energies. This can be measured by looking at trends in patent data. The number of patent applications relating to renewable energies increased by more than 500% between 2002 and 2012 and still continues to grow today. In 2019 alone, close to 3,000 new patent applications were filed for renewable energies: this means more than 3,000 new inventions which have the potential to make us greener.
Second, it is critical that we continue to innovate in green technologies and, critically for our industry, to meet patients’ unmet needs. This means discovering new solutions for conditions which are already the subject of substantial R&D efforts and to meet the sudden needs which emerge from a pandemic like the one we are facing today. Both require all the resources, tools and expertise – all the power of our innovation engine – to focus on finding a cure.
In the present circumstances, the relevance of a stable and reliable intellectual property (IP) framework is critical. This may not seem obvious to many, especially as some countries or NGOs ask companies to waive the intellectual property rights for treatments which do not exist yet. The biopharmaceutical industry knows the challenges ahead: companies have not only stepped up their efforts, they also have committed to work with all stakeholders to make these medicines and vaccines accessible and affordable so that future treatments and vaccines reach those who need them. In the meantime, these calls ignore that a functioning IP framework has contributed to build the innovation engine we all need to be running full speed to outpace the pandemic.
This same framework has contributed significantly to the creation and accumulation of all the knowledge that we are now able to apply to this new virus, including most of the treatments now being tested against Covid-19. This system is crucial for companies to be able to invest every day in researching and developing innovative medicines to improve the lives of patients. Without the IP system, no company could shoulder the risks of the R&D required to continue the fight in the long term.
This is precisely why the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) chose “Innovate for a Green Future” as the theme for World IP Day 2020. Intellectual property plays a key role in fostering innovation and making these new technologies available for us to contribute to better health and a better future with the limited resources of our planet.
At UCB, we are convinced that addressing these challenges and being successful as a company go hand in hand. We therefore see sustainability as our business approach and minimizing our environmental footprint is one of the key priority pillars that we are focusing on.
All of us are still trying to manage the ongoing crisis. Yet, at all levels, we are already starting to look at the medium-to-long-term impact of this pandemic and at what “the world after” will – and should – look like.
The decisions we make today will shape what our tomorrow will be. This has always been true for our R&D efforts and it is clear now that this is true for all the business decisions we make. Companies, governments, international organizations, all have a key role to play. We must aim higher and strive to exit this pandemic stronger than before. To achieve this, we must continue to innovate, in the labs and in policy, to deliver on our commitments to patients and society in a sustainable way.