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CNR, Novartis Seal $25 Million Biotech Research Agreement

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted December 02, 1998

The president of Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute came to campus last week to sign an unprecedented agreement with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology in the College of Natural Resources establishing a five-year, $25 million research collaboration in the area of plant genomics.

At a press conference Nov. 23, NADI President Steven Briggs and the campus's Vice Chancellor for Research Joseph Cerny signed the agreement and answered questions about its importance to the campus.

Briggs and Novartis CEO Douglas Watson were enthusiastic about the agreement, as were CNR Dean Gordon Rausser and Bob Buchanan, chair of the department. The unique collaboration will keep Berkeley scientists and California farmers at the forefront of agricultural biotechnology, said CNR Dean Gordon Rausser. Already 28 faculty have signed on to participate.

Chancellor Robert Berdahl, however, emphasized the experimental nature of the alliance.

"This is the first, though experimental, step in what we hope will be a long and fruitful relationship," he said. "Novartis

brings significant intellectual assets as well as financial support to an important area of fundamental research."

Dissenting students held their own meeting afterward to voice concern about the deal, which they think will steer college research away from areas such as sustainable agriculture and toward projects that will only benefit international agribusiness. Rausser and several faculty, joined by Briggs, joined in the debate.

A rogue group of anti-biotech activists, the Biotic Baking Brigade, also made their position known. Two members who sneaked into the press conference threw vegan pumpkin pies at Watson and Rausser before being subdued by campus police. Though whipped cream splattered several participants, Rausser dodged the main pie and the press conference quickly resumed.

Under the terms of the agreement, Novartis will commit $25 million over five years to support research in the department. The unrestricted funds will go solely for non-targeted, basic research in plant genomics.

Novartis also will provide access to proprietary technology and DNA databases, which will significantly enhance the university's ability to do research at the forefront of plant genomics.

In return, Novartis will receive first rights to negotiate for a fraction -- roughly 30 percent to 40 percent -- of the discoveries made in the department. The fraction corresponds approximately to the proportion of the department's total research budget provided by Novartis, and will vary from year to year.

Novartis will pay patent costs, license fees, royalties and all other costs normally associated with the commercialization of research, but the university will own the patents and collect royalties on their use.

Novartis, a Swiss-based life sciences company, is a world leader in biotechnology and invests more than $2.5 billion in research and development annually.

Two years ago CNR set out to design a new approach to research collaborations with the private sector to augment the individual agreements faculty currently enter into with private companies. The goal was not simply to raise funds to support research, but to identify a private sector partner who would make a significant intellectual contribution to the university and support research in the public interest.

Among the proposals solicited, Novartis's proposal stood out because of the company's interest in safeguarding academic freedom.

Among the safeguards is a six-member advisory committee to oversee the contract, made up of three Berkeley representatives and three Novartis representatives, as well as a five-member research rommittee to award the grants. The research committee will include three Berkeley faculty.

More information on the agreement can be found on the campus's News & Events web site at


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