Arizona lawmakers are hoping a newly enacted tweak in the state’s public records law leads to a new influx of companies willing to pay state universities to do research for them.
That change carves out an exception to that law for what is developed at universities as the result of “sponsored research.” In essence, it ensures that a company cannot file a public records request and learn what a competitor is doing.
The new law already may be reaping benefits: A spokesman for Sanofi-Aventis, a nationwide company that develops prescriptions and vaccines, told Capitol Media Services his firm is now negotiating with the University of Arizona. Jack Cox said the oncology research would be the first such contract with an Arizona university in recent memory.
Joan Koerber-Walker, president of the Arizona BioIndustry Association, said there already were exceptions in the law that allowed a university to reject a request for proprietary information furnished to the school. But she said that wording left many bioscience companies uneasy.
“What was unclear was once a public employee like a university professor started working on that intellectual problem, was the byproduct still protected,” she explained. And that, said Koerber-Walker, was enough to keep some companies from agreeing to work with the universities.
Cox confirmed the problem, saying his firm saw Arizona’s public records law as different from a lot of other states.
“We saw it as a potential impediment for our ability to do business with public universities,” Cox explained. “We have an interest in protecting our proprietary information.”
For a company like his, the issue relates to patent laws and the ability to recoup investments.
“The value of a medicine is not how much it costs to make,” Cox said. “The value is in the intellectual property that went into discovering that medicine.”
The key is what Cox called the “limited shelf life” of products, with federal law offering companies a 20-year patent protection.
“But the clock starts ticking when you file the patent,” he said, long before a medicine is even developed or ready for clinical trials. So keeping the information secret is crucial.
Koerber-Walker said the change will mean more than aid to the pharmaceutical industry.
“It was holding up contracts,” she said, and not just for medical clinical trials. She said other firms looking to do sponsored research on everything from ecological to aerospace also were balking.
“We were losing these rich contracts,” she said.
Making the change, however, was not a simple process.
Koerber-Walker said one hurdle was the media which generally reacts with suspicion to anything that narrows access to what have been seen as public records. So Rep. Vic Williams, R-Tucson, who agreed to push the change, got the Arizona Newspapers Association involved, inviting representatives to several “stakeholder meetings” to craft language.
The final version adds language which says there need not be disclosure of “proprietary data or research material provided to a university by a third party who has an expectation that the data or material will remain confidential.”
While that language did not get an endorsement by the association, it agreed to remain neutral, a move that cleared the way for unanimous approval by both the House and Senate and a signature from Gov. Jan Brewer.
The change included an emergency clause, allowing it to take effect immediately on Brewer’s signature. Normally, new laws do not go on the books until 90 days after the end of the session, which would have put it off until August.
Koerber-Walker said that immediate enactment was necessary, saying there were companies with pending contracts with universities -- contracts that would not be signed without the change.
One of those, Cox said, was with his firm which has a facility in Oro Valley.
He said there had been talks with the University of Arizona about doing some research.
“The change in the law enabled that conversation to move forward,” Cox said, saying if the law had not been altered, “that wouldn’t have happened.”
He did not want to provide details, but said the agreement was for research in oncology rather than clinical trials.