How I decide whether to apply for IP

Overview

Having successfully received funding for iTeddy on Dragons' Den, in addition to running our portfolio of businesses through the Hakim Group, I'm also now director for entrepreneurship at University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP). It's our job to whittle professors' ideas down to the best ones which show the most potential to have IP granted.

The challenge

When inventors have ideas, whether it be entrepreneurs or professors, they're often very keen to start racking up thousands of pounds' worth of IP costs straight away. Having IP granted is often a very long, drawn-out process, though, so one of the challenges we face is striking a balance between the business case and spending money - sometimes the process of getting IP granted will slow down the execution of the actual product.

We try to manage their expectations and establish that there is ample opportunity for commercialising the IP before we start spending money trying to patent and trademark everything.

The solution

If I take iTeddy as an example, appearing on Dragons' Den was a real lesson. I was in there for about three hours with Richard Farliegh, Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis questioning me on the trademarks and patents. Richard Farleigh and Deborah Meaden, both thought it was a great idea but they weren't sure whether the patent would be granted.

I realised I had to use what is called first-to-market momentum - using the advantage you have in getting your product to market to beat off would-be copycats.

That means getting your product to market and on to the shelves of one of the big players before anyone else, and if someone does try to copy you, as long as you've executed it well, they're always going to be behind.

With the best will in the world, there's usually a way of someone knocking off your product by tiptoeing around your IP - its often the first signs of your success, others wanting to create a "me-too" product - but if you've delivered the sales for your retailers and developed good brand awareness, your competitors will always be playing catchup.

The toy market is littered with examples of exactly that, but those manufacturers have to be very confident retailers are going to take your product out and put theirs in. So as long as you have a good sales route and great product development in the pipeline, that's great protection from someone else dislodging you.

Key lesson

As long as you have good execution, great developments on the way and you make the most of your first-to-market momentum; that, in the absence of having IP, is a very strong place to be.

However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to protect what you can, you should - but sometimes you could lose that vital ingredient of speed to market, which was certainly one of our key advantages.

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