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The award recognizes the Arktek cooler, which keeps vaccines cold for up to a month without power.

When looking for a solution to a tough humanitarian issue, patents are rarely the first thing on anyone’s mind. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Patents for Humanity program is seeking to change that, by giving U.S. companies an incentive to tackle global development challenges.

Nathan Myhrvold
Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold

And here’s a twist: The 2016 award winners, announced today, include the Global Good Fund, a joint project between Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. The Bellevue-based technology research and development firm, led by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, is one of the top five patent holders in the United States — and a lighting rod for criticism of the patent system.

The Global Good Fund was recognized for its development of the Arktek cooler, which can keep vaccines cold for up to a month with no power. The cooler is designed for use in off-grid locations, where vaccines are often crucial health resources and power is limited.

The Global Good Fund had donated dozens of coolers for use in emergencies, including the 2014 Ebola outbreak and after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The tech has now been licensed to an independent company to be produced on a large scale.

The award is notable given the harsh criticism Intellectual Ventures has drawn as a result of its large patent holdings and licensing practices. Intellectual Ventures points to initiatives such as the Global Good Fund and a series of spinout ventures as evidence of the positive impact of its technology development and intellectual property initiatives.

GeekWire editors will be interviewing Myhrvold about these issues and other topics next week on stage at the GeekWire Summit technology conference in Seattle.

Here are the four Patents for Humanity winners, with descriptions from the USPTO.

  • U.S. Food & Drug Administration – for developing an improved meningitis vaccine production process that’s been used to immunize 235 million people in high-risk Africa countries.
  • Case Western Reserve University – for creating a low-cost, accurate malaria detection device using magnets and lasers that allows better diagnosis and treatment.
  • GestVision – for developing a quick, simple diagnostic test for preeclampsia, a potentially life threatening pregnancy complication, for use in developing regions.
  • Global Good Fund at Intellectual Ventures – for creating a passive cooler that can keep vaccines cold over 30 days and donating dozens of units to the fight against Ebola and other relief efforts.

And here are the honorable mentions.

  • Sanofi – for researching new malaria drug candidates with shorter, simpler treatment
  • Alere Inc – for developing diagnostic assays for rapid and early HIV diagnosis at the point of care in low-resource settings
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