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Here's how to use intellectual property to engineer success

Chris Poll, associate at IP law firm Gill Jennings and Every

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Some industries appear kinder to entrepreneurs than others.

Silicon Valley can make it look like anyone with exceptional coding skills can create a disruptive product, but certain sectors can prove challenging for innovators trying to realise their game-changing ideas – especially when they’re up against well-established industry giants. 

This is the obstacle faced by many great minds within the more traditional fields of engineering, such as heavy industries. Whether innovated by a sole inventor or a start-up headed by an engineer, the most brilliant pieces of technology can still fail to get to market because the cost barriers to entry are so high. Building new technologies or processes often requires significant capital investment or large-scale equipment, neither of which is easy to come by for small teams or independent innovators. 

For example, if an advanced engineering start-up has developed a disruptive metal processing method that cannot be rolled out in a small lab alone, one might think they would need to find the capital to build an entirely new and expensive plant before they can move the invention forward. 

Equally, if an inventor has created a new component for, say, a food manufacturing system, securing deployment for something that makes up just a small part of the entire manufacturing process can be near impossible. 

As a result, good ideas get shelved because they are simply too expensive to implement. This can see people give up on their ideas too early. 

While it might not be easy to bring ground-breaking innovations to life, smaller players needn’t lose hope in their ideas’ untapped potential. There exists a solution that can still allow them to cash in on this potential and it comes in the form of intellectual property (IP), and in particular patent protection. 

A key benefit of IP protection is that it can provide inventors with a way to turn an idea into a tangible asset that can be assigned a value on the balance sheet, and then sold, licensed, used to secure funding and more. An idea that is protected by a patent becomes a valuable asset for inventors and start-ups alike to realise the value in their inventions – even if they cannot bring them to market themselves. 

IP doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive

Bringing engineering inventions to market can be expensive even without the associated costs of IP protection. There are however some tricks that will keep costs to a minimum and maximise the chances of the invention being implemented in some way. 

For example, inventors only need initially to file a national patent application (such as at the UK Intellectual Property Office) to secure their rights to their invention, which minimises the short-term costs significantly. At the end of the ‘priority year’ immediately following the initial filing date, the applicant can then file applications for the invention in other countries, or utilise an international ‘PCT’ application, claiming the ‘priority’ filing date from the original application. 

A PCT application is particularly useful as it is effectively a ‘holding’ application, which buys the applicant a further 18 months (i.e. a total of 30 months from the initial filing date) before the costly commercial decisions regarding continuing the application in further countries need be made. 

An inventor who wants to sell or license their protected idea within that 30-month PCT window, rather than commercialise it themselves, therefore only has to pay the minimal upfront filing costs to secure the attractive potential for patent protection worldwide, with the buyer or licensee assuming the later costs. Filing a PCT application is also a great tactic that can be used for scaling-up ideas further down the line by securing funding, instead of selling. Inventors can use the 30-month PCT window to secure funding with only the minimal costs of a national and/or PCT patent application. Once the funds have hit their bank account, they can use the investment to drive their industrial scale-up as well as growing their IP portfolio worldwide. 

In summary, companies would be well advised to engage a strategic patent attorney early in their development to review their IP and devise an effective IP strategy. This may include preparing reports that highlight the value of their IP assets to potential investors.

IP does not just have to be seen as a way to protect an idea – it can also be a vital tool for bringing new ideas to market in industries where small players are all too often excluded.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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