UC Berkeley’s latest fundraising idea? Auction data that helped win a Nobel Prize as an NFT

May 28, 2021, 7:30 AM UTC

Digital data related to Nobel Prize-winning inventions for gene editing and cancer immunotherapy will be sold connected to non-fungible tokens next week, a novel way for the University of California at Berkeley to raise money for research.

The NFTs “link to online digitized documents—internal forms and correspondence that document the initial research findings that led to two of the most important biomedical breakthroughs of the 21st century,” the university said in a release. The school will retain ownership of the patents and intellectual property on the inventions.

Non-fungible tokens are unique identifiers of digital data that effectively act as certificates of authenticity for their owners. While the underlying technology has been around for a decade, there’s been a recent sales frenzy with assets such as artwork, a tweet and even a digital mosaic that sold for $69.3 million in March.

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The NFTs being offered by the university may be the first of their kind, so officials there can’t speculate on how much they can raise, said UC Berkeley spokesman Robert Sanders.

An auction on data related to immunotherapy scientist James Allison’s work that led to his sharing the 2018 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine could begin as early as June 2 on Foundation, an NFT auction platform based on Ethereum, the blockchain network, the school said. One will be held later for the Crispr-Cas9 work by Professor Jennifer Doudna, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The university will keep 85% of the proceeds and use part of that money to offset the energy costs of minting the NFT. The school also will get 10% of the proceeds of any subsequent sale of the NFT. The bulk of the school’s take will fund education and research at the university, including work in the campus’s blockchain hub, Blockchain at Berkeley.

For Allison’s work, the school is offering a digital version of the invention disclosure form, the data given to the patent lawyers so they can file applications, as well internal notes that include the line “This is the data that has got us excited.”

“This is the first time the world is formally told ‘Look at this,”’ said Rich Lyons, the university’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer.

While Allison’s patents have expired, Doudna’s work is still generating new patents, so lawyers have to take a closer look before data from her work is sold, Lyons said.

Allison was a professor at the school in the 1990s when he made breakthrough discoveries on ways to get the body’s immune system to fight cancer. More than 15 types of cancer, including those of the skin, lung, kidney and bladder, are being treated with immunotherapies based on his work.

Doudna’s work helped create a gene-editing technique called CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, that uses a defense mechanism employed by bacteria to target parts of a gene and cut them out like a pair of molecular scissors. It has already triggered a revolution in the world of genetics by making it easier to manipulate the building blocks of living organisms.

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