Any tech-based company intent on achieving game-changing disruption and lasting commercial advantage will have certain priorities. Understandably, as the intensity of technological innovation gives way to the trials of market entry, a coherent intellectual property (IP) strategy can end up relatively low on the to-do-list. It might even be subject to a degree of avoidance from passionate technologists wary of finding that their ideas might not actually be innovative or new.
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As IP lead here at Cambridge Consultants, I often begin client conversations by putting IP into perspective and demystifying it. What does IP means for this particular client? High on my agenda is the misconception that IP necessarily equates to patent ownership and all the implied expense that comes with it. Not true. Patents (utility or design) are just one in a range of options that include trademarks, copyrights, confidential information and trade secrets.
A client’s IP strategy can therefore be a combination of all these protection mechanisms, or even to not have IP at all! IP is a vital company asset and as such must be protected, managed, monetised and maintained like any other asset. Remember that to maximise your return on investment (ROI), it is vital to align your IP strategy with your corporate, business unit and R&D strategies – an IP strategy that is not aligned will not represent the strategic direction of an organisation.
Consider the size of your company
When developing an IP strategy, one of the first aspects to consider can be the size of your company. A small to medium business with only a few employees working on an invention might not need an overly formal IP strategy. Larger and more complex companies, on the other hand, are wise to develop a very detailed IP strategy and accompanying governance framework. My experience is that companies both large and small tend to take a variety of approaches depending on what they feel is important to them and their innovations.
In all cases, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to IP strategy and management. A software company is going to have markedly different considerations to contend with than a fast-moving consumer goods company, an automotive manufacturer or even a service provision company. The organisations that become adept managing their IP have often developed a bespoke IP strategy and governance framework, whilst ensuring that it is being both implemented and adhered to. This results in certain changes to an organisational operating model and the way in which they manage their strategies, budgets and people – ultimately focused on achieving strategic goals and maximising IP value, through organisational coordination, cooperation, collaboration and communication.
Analyse your competitive advantage
In the early stage of developing a strategy, I like to sit down with my clients and pose some key questions. The first is always designed to help me understand why they are interested in IP. Many of the subsequent queries revolve around analysis of competitive advantage and potential barriers to market entry. What is the value of the product or service you want to protect? Would you class the product, process, procedure as core/strategic knowhow? Could you make a good ROI on it in the current market? What is that market and how competitive is it? How do your competitors market their product or service? Are there complementary industries in the market that you might be able to tap into?
The discussion will form early insights into the design principles and IP decision criteria of the organisation. They inform decisions about how the IP portfolio should be managed. At Cambridge Consultants, we advise clients of the importance of a thorough review of their portfolio – looking at what IP they have and checking it is aligned to their business strategy.
Chose which IP is best for you
As I pointed out earlier, IP doesn’t always mean patents. It is best to consider the options on the table; all different and distinct legal mechanisms designed to actively or passively protect your IP. Sometimes, after careful examination and through utilising design principle methodology and decision criteria, organisations may determine that certain IP is not considered core/strategic and so opt not to patent. On the other hand, they may also identify that IP previously considered less strategic is actually their ‘secret weapon’. In all eventualities, selecting the best protection mechanism will rely on a solid and well-defined governance model that provides guidance when considering what IP mechanism to adopt.
Trade secret law to protect innovation is sometimes a better approach than filing patents. Licencing might be another option for better ROI. In other instances, developing a robust portfolio that includes both defensive and offensive patents is the key to success. The former covers the company’s products while the latter protect against what competitors might do to circumvent that defence.
Whichever way you look at it, the first step in protecting, managing and growing your IP assets is realising that a defined, documented and comprehensive IP strategy and governance model are required. I’m always happy to share my IP strategy checklist, so do drop me an email if you’d like to discuss any aspect of the topic in more detail.