Understanding the true value of your IP assets: A brief history of insulin

26 April 2021


On the occasion of a World IP Day that is taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, and during the life saving rollout of entirely new vaccine technologies, it is worth commemorating the role that innovation has long played in improving human health.

In the early 1920s, a group of researchers at the University of Toronto invented the first therapeutic insulin extract, the subject of Canadian Patent No. 234336. Frederick Banting and Charles Best are the names most popularly associated with the discovery, James Collip is also named as an inventor on patents, and J.J.R. Macleod shared with Banting in the Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery in 1923.

The sometimes controversial attribution of credit that this reflects is a common feature of innovation, which often springs from the collaboration of individuals with diverse talents and perspectives. There is diversity as well in approaches to commercialization. The inventors famously sold their rights in the patents to the University of Toronto for a dollar.  Less often noted is the fact that the University went on to leverage those patent rights to earn significant royalties that funded further innovation, at the time amounting to one of the largest sources of biomedical research funding in Canada.

The story of the discovery of insulin epitomizes the value to innovation of collaboration between people with diverse perspectives, as well as the flexibility of approach that intellectual property facilitates. The sale of patent rights for a dollar was the right path for the inventors, and the licensing of others was the right avenue to widespread commercialization for the University. As this illustrates, patents are bargaining chips, and there are an unlimited number of ways in which you can choose to play your chips.

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