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Patent Backlog Bothers Biotech Firms

— The increasing backlog of U.S. patent applications, and the time it takes to get a patent, are raising concerns in San Diego's biotechnology industry.

The U.S. Patent office has a huge influence over the the biotechnology industry because biotechs are built on intellectual property protected by patents.

John Wetherell, a San Diego patent attorney, said, "Patents are everything. They're the only game in town. If you have no patents you have no company."

And that's a problem now that it's taking longer and longer to get a patent. Published reports say the average wait for a U.S. patent award is three and a half years. Wetherell says for biotechnology innovations it commonly takes four to five years. This means San Diego biotech companies are often forced to ask investors for money when they have no proof their innovative ideas actually belong to them.

Jeanne Loring, director of the stem cell center at the Scripps Research Institute, says this is one reason so many biotechs fail.

"They never actually get anywhere because they can't obtain intellectual property," said Loring. "So there are a lot of companies that we'll never hear of that can't go past the early stage."

There are currently more than one million U.S. patent applications awaiting approval. Proposed solutions to the problem range from patent law reform to hiring more patent examiners and paying them bigger salaries. The Department of Commerce, which runs the patent office, issued a statement saying the length of time it takes to issue patents is "unacceptable." The statement offered no plan for how to solve the problem.

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