Effective industry and research collaboration: addressing the intellectual property challenge
One of many lessons I learned as a young engineer working for an automotive supplier in the UK was about the relevance of intellectual property (IP) to a manufacturing business.
This was before the digital age, and – as the most junior engineer in the office – it was my job to roll the new product design drawings (Mylars, for those who remember) from the vehicle producers across the floor to decipher what had changed since the previous issue. I had found a small box in the corner of the drawings that said that any work undertaken by the supplier remained the IP of the car company. I asked my director what it meant – did it matter that we didn’t own any IP in the parts we were manufacturing?
He explained that in some sectors – defence and medical, for example – IP ownership is critical for establishing credibility and authority in the field, and to protect the uniqueness of an invention as well as deliver profitability given the sizeable upfront investments. But, he said, in manufacturing, the value was likely more in the manufacturer’s way of producing, processing and selling the product.
In other words, the how of manufacturing is more important than the what. He also added that manufacturers were often better off focusing their resources on keeping their IP confidential and bringing their product or service to market as quickly as practical, rather than investing significantly in registering inventions, designs and the like. The analogy he gave me, which still resonates today, was that if he and I were asked to bake a cake using the same ingredients, equipment and recipe, our cakes would be very different. You only have to watch Masterchef to see this in action.
When considering investing in IP you have to be clear on why it matters to you (at its most basic, IP is just another commercial tool), and what value you can create through ownership and exploitation of IP. This is arguably more relevant in today’s data-driven and disruptive environment. It is also relevant when collaborating with others, particularly with research organisations, where the ownership of IP has historically been one of the primary barriers to forming successful and sustainable partnerships.
In the third of our three part series on cultivating successful industry and research partnerships, we look at different ways manufacturers can address IP ownership arising out of collaborations with research organisations.