Why tech-led innovators should focus on creating a sustainable economy

Tech innovators have the opportunity to propel the UK's position as a global start-up hub. But a lot of it hinges on putting long-term growth first. IP firm Withers & Rogers' chairman, Karl Barnfather writes.

The number of digital tech companies in the UK is increasing but in order to excel commercially and contribute to a sustainable economy there needs to be greater understanding of the role of global intellectual property protection.

The Tech Nation 2017 report has recently confirmed the UK’s position as the digital capital of Europe; a leader in tech investment, digital skills and collaboration with ecosystems. In 2016, investment in the UK’s digital tech sector reached £6.8 billion – more than in any other European country.

Further reflecting the buoyancy of the UK’s tech sector, a report on international patent filings by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) shows that the number of UK-based filers rose by 3.9 per cent to 5,496 in 2016, up from 5,313 in the previous year. This positions the UK as the third most prolific user of the international patent system in Europe, behind Germany and France respectively.

Despite strong data about the domestic tech economy, it is obvious from WIPO’s report that innovators based in Asian countries, such as China, are filing many more international patent applications than their European counterparts. In particular, the number of international patents filed by China-based companies rose by 45 per cent in 2016, putting the country on track to overtake Japan and the US. This rapid growth in global patent filing activity emanating from Asia means that innovators in the UK and other parts of Europe could be in danger of losing ground.

To compete successfully in global markets, innovators in the UK need to understand the basics about how to develop a strong, sustainable commercial proposition from the start. Necessarily, this involves developing a strategic appreciation of the role of global intellectual property protection.

Some tips for realising commercial potential follow:

  1. Understand your unique proposition.  Have a strong understanding of what you are taking to market and avoid short-term thinking.  Demonstrate that your business proposition is sustainable and scalable by protecting your market share as rigorously as possible using appropriate IP rights.  Taking this approach could help to create expansion opportunities in the future and allow the business to move into other markets and grow into a more successful enterprise.
  2. Are you clear to launch?  Clear your pathway to market by ensuring that your brand, product or invention does not infringe any existing intellectual property rights.  Check that the proposed brand for your business does not infringe a registered trade mark; the appearance of your product does not infringe design rights or copyright and that your new technology has not been patented already.
  3. Obtain legal protection before you disclose.  Innovators often want to shout about their new product or service – and quite rightly so.  But disclosing information to an outsider, even unwittingly, could undermine the business and limit its potential. For example, early disclosure could render the innovation ineligible for patent protection and an entire market could be closed off because a key competitor has stolen the advantage.
  4. Innovate, review and protect.  You need to be aware of IP rights to be able to make informed business decisions.  Conduct an audit of your innovation and business proposal and make IP awareness part of the culture of your business.  This should include making certain that all contracts with employees and third parties include a confidentiality clause or non-disclosure agreement, making it clear that valuable business knowledge should not be disclosed.
  5. Know what IP can do.  Patent protection can help businesses to monopolise a market for a period of 20 years, but other IP rights can also be used to help springboard into new markets.   Ensure that your business makes the most of its transferable assets by having an IP strategy, which is designed to facilitate growth in the medium to long term.
  6. Take advantage of others. Having a strong portfolio and audit trail for your IP practices can help to position your business as an attractive investment opportunity.  Strategic partnerships and collaborations can help businesses to achieve growth, presenting opportunities to diversify into new markets and improving the long-term prospects of the business.

Karl Barnfather is chairman at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers LLP

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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