When the Maryland-based Cystic Fibrosis Foundation invested in Californian biotechnology company Aurora Biosciences in 2000, it launched a revolution. Before then, it was taboo for a biomedical charity to take a stake in a commercial firm; instead, foundations usually sent their money to academic labs. Those days are over — now is the era of 'venture philanthropy'.

Under this model, continued investment in research can depend on projects reaching predetermined milestones and deadlines. And, as we report on page 275, charities have started to take an interest in controlling the intellectual property that results from such projects. That idea makes some uneasy, but the benefits extend beyond royalties: clauses in intellectual-property agreements can be used to protect a philanthropic investment as well. One risk of working with industry, for example, is that a promising drug can be shelved if the company that owns the patent rights pulls the plug on efforts to develop it as a therapy. To protect against this, much research funded by philanthropies is now subject to interruption licences, which allow charities to regain — and relicense — intellectual-property rights if a project ceases.

Then there is the 'research-only' clause, which promotes continued scientific progress in a field by encouraging companies to allow academic labs to study patented technology. However, patents remain an important currency in business. The best way to develop a new drug is probably for charitable investors to take a guiding, but not overly controlling, hand in intellectual property. If a charity demands high royalties, industrial partners — beholden to the financial demands of their investors — may shy away from the project. And if a charity calls for co-ownership of the intellectual property with a company or university, potential partners might hesitate to license the resulting patents.

University researchers can also benefit from paying closer attention to intellectual property. In some ways, the concept runs counter to the intellectual freedom prized in academia. But the venture-philanthropy approach could be a useful model, especially as the search for funds and the push towards translational research nudge more academic labs into partnerships with industry. Collaborations between academia and pharmaceutical companies are already using research agreements that grant researchers rights similar to those in interruption licences (see Nature 474, 433–434; 2011).

Many academics reject the notion of patents altogether, preferring their research to remain openly accessible. In some cases, this approach has worked. The Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a US-based public–private partnership, has unquestionably accelerated the search for new diagnostic tools without patenting its results. The Michael J. Fox Foundation has also taken this approach in its Progression Markers Initiative to find biomarkers of Parkinson's disease.

Industry has seen the value of such projects, and is pushing for more of them. But the approach works best when laying important, early-stage scientific groundwork. Eschewing patents can stifle the development of downstream projects by discouraging private-sector investment.

Yet that does not mean that academics — or charities — should capitulate completely to industry's demands. Indeed, both should expect some push-back from industry at the negotiating table on even minor control measures such as interruption licences. But to take a stronger line on the ownership of intellectual property will ultimately help all those involved in health-care research to turn ideas into therapies.