Funding for Biotech Startups Raise Biopiracy Concerns, May Have Implications for Entrepreneurship Based on Traditional Knowledge

The emergence of startup funding programs has interesting implications for Indigenous entrepreneurship, especially in the areas of  traditional knowledge and associated genetic resources.


This week, for example, the American company Y Combinator put out a call for startup companies working on water availability in the face of growing uncertainty caused by climate change. The call invites ideas from startup companies working on technologies such as lower-cost desalination plants, novel purification techniques, smart irrigation systems, or mechanisms to reduce water usage. Y Combinator previously put out a call for biotech and life science related startups. In support of this call, Y Combinator advertised its prior investment in companies working in synthetic biology such as personalized cancer treatments (Notable Labs), drug discovery (Atomwise), and biome sequencing (μBiome). The calls offer the potential to participate in Y Combinator’s three-month program in Mountain View, California in which partners work with startup founders to scale processes, connect to potential customers and strategize communication to investors.


This is one example where Silicone Valley is looking to invest in, and profit from, biotechnology which may exploit various traditional knowledge through biopiracy. Indigenous traditional knowledge (TK) is proving essential to unlocking the full commercial and social potential of genetic resources. Indigenous communities looking to commercialize TK and associated GRs may wish to partner with these smaller, more nimble players. First, startup companies involved in biotechnology might be more conscious of Indigenous ownership arrangements, compared with large, multi-national corporations which have attempted to commercialize TK in the past, because these small firms are more closely attuned to public opinion and because they tend to do more of their work at the local and community level. Second, dealings with small corporations may provide more balanced protections for traditional knowledge through IP law or contracts than has been afforded in the case of large multinationals; a fair and equitable contractual relationships seem more plausible where the two parties’ resources are more closely balanced.


The emergence of startup funding programs for the biotech industry may also be an opportunity for Indigenous nations or communities to engage in entrepreneurship and enter into the biotech market of their own accord. For example, Australia’s first ever accelerator program for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander entrepreneurs, Barayamal, offers mentorship, networking, and training for Indigenous people interested in digital technology. Barayamal ran Australia’s first Indigenous Startup Weekend in Brisbane in August. Domestically, the Startup Canada Awards celebrate those working to advance entrepreneurship in Canada, increasing awareness of the importance of strengthening Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and culture, and incentivizing efforts and elevate the ambitions of the Canadian entrepreneurial community. The Startup Canada Indigenous Entrepreneur Award is awarded to indigenous entrepreneurs who have impacted entrepreneurship through exemplary activities and leadership of their companies.


Creating their own startup corporations and seeking entrepreneurial funding may be one way for Indigenous peoples to capitalize on traditional knowledge held within the community and combat biopiracy. While many Indigenous and local communities are wary of sharing their TK, those that choose to commercialize their TK require a mechanism that will allow them to balance substantial economic opportunity against the real risk of appropriation or misuse. Requiring Indigenous control or ownership of the entities that extract and commercialize genetic resources by way of TK is one possible model for achieving these conflicting objectives. Ultimately,  the goal of self-determination for Indigenous peoples means that the way in which they choose to protect or capitalize on TK held within their communities is a question they must answer themselves.


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