The five dos and don’ts of IP

From knowing your worth, to publishing data, IP expert Neville gives us the lowdown on protecting your idea for the next great wearable.

As part of the prize pack, this year’s C-Prize finalists will get access to Callaghan Innovation's IP Programme. With just a few days left to go before the deadline, we asked Neville Quérée, Group Manager of Intellectual Property, to talk about the programme, and about the process of protecting your intellectual assets.

I’ve been working in IP for a long time, and the key thing I’ve learned is that every business comes with its own, individual needs. If an organisation is driven by a social conscience, they may be very happy for other people to benefit directly from their ideas. If they are driven by commercial forces, they may want to bring a unique, valuable product to the market. Both of these businesses will have intellectual assets, but their approach to protecting them will necessarily differ.

In many cases, organisations will leap straight into the patenting process, without considering if it is the right approach. I can understand why an inventor might be reluctant to discuss their idea openly, but often, their fear stems from a lack of understanding of the IP process. That’s where we come in – we want to improve people's awareness of IP, and to help them understand how, why, and when it should apply to their business.

Those who make it through to the finals of this year’s C-Prize will be given access to our Innovation IP Programme. That involves identifying their key intellectual assets, and understanding what makes them valuable. They’ll do this via a confidential, one-to-one session with one of our highly-experienced providers – usually a patent attorney. The finalists will be able to talk freely about their specific idea, and receive IP guidance based on that, without worrying about losing ownership. The next stage is to integrate their new IP strategy into their business plan, so that it works for them. For a young business, this is a fantastic and very valuable opportunity.

But even if you aren’t a finalist, there are a few key things to consider if you’re developing an idea in a competitive marketplace.

1. Know your worth

Firstly, be sure to develop an understanding of the value of your idea, to identify what make its unique, and what gives it a competitive edge. So, do some IP landscape searching via FreePatentsOnline, Google Patents or another search engine.

In my experience, a lot of engineers assume that everything can be reverse-engineered. But it’s not possible to unpick the know-how gained from developing, testing, and trialling an idea, and that contributes directly to an asset’s value. Take Coca-Cola – in 2014, their book value was $7 billion, but their market value is in the range of $80 billion. The difference between those figures is defined by intangible assets, which include IP.

So, drill down into what it is that makes your idea clever, valuable, and unique. And then take advice on how best to protect that.

2. Take a wider view

In R&D, you’re usually developing a specific idea to solve a specific problem – it’s a linear process. And you're so busy getting it up and running, that it’s easy to ignore other potential applications for your technology.

Here’s an example – the most effective liquid medications given to ill horses are highly-viscous, because they’re more difficult for the horse to spit out. So, an NZ company developed a dispenser with a clever valve that could cope with those high viscosity liquids. A big chain in the US realised that they could use the same valve to dispense ketchup onto their hamburgers. They licensed the technology from the inventors, and it has proven to be very lucrative for them.

So, try not to get tunnel-vision with your idea. Explore alternative avenues, but remember that you don’t need to go down that path yourself – licensing and royalties may be better options.

3. Publish or perish?

A lot of people worry about ‘going silent’ during their patent application process, and it’s true that publishing at the wrong time can be fatal to a registration of IP rights. But for me, it’s not about if you should publish, but when. If you follow a patenting route, then your clever idea is going to be published anyway – okay, you might have to wait 12 months, but it will eventually reach the public realm. It's part of the social contract, and is the reason that patents exist.

People can also publish on avenues of enquiry that have failed – I’ve been told null results are very valuable in science. And surprisingly, there are some IP strategies that require you to actively publicise what you're doing. So, the publishing question is not as black-and-white as you might think.

4. Remember your business plan

Several businesses have come out of the IP Innovation Programme realising that they’d previously been patenting without thinking about it, and that their existing portfolio of patents no longer fits their business plan. That’s a valuable learning outcome, but it is avoidable. At every point during discussions and decisions around your idea, just keep going back to the question of what you have, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it. The programme is not ‘anti-patenting’ in any way – if this is the right approach for your idea, then we can absolutely support you to do that.

But there’s more to IP than patenting or copyrighting, and it all depends on the needs and aims of your business.

5. Be mindful

It’s ok to be excited about your idea, especially as it can help attract investors to your business, but be sure to stick to your plan, and don’t make exceptions unconsciously. If a journalist comes calling, always step back and think ‘Is this the right time to unveil my innovation?’ If not, then it’s perfectly reasonable to say, 'I can't discuss this right now, but I'll let you know when we're able to talk to you.’

Really, when it comes to protecting your idea, don’t do anything on the spur of the moment! When people do things through ignorance, panic, or excitement, they make mistakes. While I can't do anything about the last two emotions, Stage 1 of the Innovation IP Programme should help with dispelling ignorance of what IP really is.

-- The deadline for #CPrize2017 is this Sunday, 2nd July. Don’t miss your chance to enter. Apply now: