I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]

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3 March 2015

What's the perfect business plan for a new product ?

I had a meeting with an inventor about her product idea, and in our talking it occurred to me to put down what I consider the key points for a business plan for a new product. Although aimed at private inventors, it makes good sense for small companies too.

As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. The outline given below is a simplification but a good start. I met many inventors in my time at the British Library and most, I'm sorry to say, were unrealistic and naive in their expectations. They did not realise how many experts they need to call on for help (much of which will be charged for). Nor did they think that exploiting an invention would take much time.

1. First is is vital to sort out what you are trying to achieve, and constraints in finance and time. All this may sound obvious, but keeping them in mind both informs and dictates the rest of the plan.

For example, is the prime motive making lots of money, to get an idea into production, to help the world with the invention ? Particularly if it is money, you have to take into account what economists call "opportunity cost" -- if you earn £50,000 p.a. and take a year out to earn £80,000 at a cost of £60,000 (the first figure is unrealistically high, the second is only too realistic), you've lost £30,000 in earnings. I once had a conversation with such a person who was convinced that income was profit.

In considering this, it is vital to think about what finances you have, your attitude to financial risk, and how much you are prepared to lose. Someone with £10,000 in savings will probably have a very different attitude to someone with £500,000. Are you prepared to say, "I will spend a maximum of £20,000" ? Many would say to me "I've gone this far, I can't give up now." That's what gamblers say, too.

Do you want to work long hours ? Chances are good that, regardless of making any money, you will be spending a lot of time on the project trying to get interest.

A timescale is also a good idea. Will you allow say a year, or two years, to get it off the ground ? That's not much time, and how is success measured ? That's your call.

2. The first of the four Ps (the other Ps are at the end of this list):

Product (what is it, why is it a good idea. Does it have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) ?  Do people really need it, can they afford it ? Is the way it works important ? Its looks ? Both ? Does the product need to observe laws and regulations on safety, or to keep to technical standards ?) If you are not familiar with the industry, learn about it.

3. You should put together a SWOT analysis of your product and also of yourself. SWOT is a useful tool: it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. In my one hour meetings with inventors when I worked at the British Library quite a few presented SWOT analyses of their product, but none offered a SWOT of themselves. Again and again they had the idea but no finance, no knowledge of accountancy or marketing or engineering... yet did not see any problem. Having weaknesses such as these won't necessarily kill the idea, but they make it harder for the inventor to succeed. My own preference was inventors who at least knew about engineering, and ideally worked with someone who knew about accountancy and/ or marketing.

In some areas, a PEST analysis of the product is also a good idea. It stands for Politics, Economics, Social, Technological. Think, say, of apps to summon cheap taxis. Perhaps the landscape has changed to suggest changes in products or processes.

4. Is it patentable ? A hugely complicated subject, and a patent attorney should be consulted. Many will offer an initial free half hour -- if so, make sure you ask questions like what will you do for me and how much do you charge for what. If it's not patentable then the odds against it being a success rise a lot. Do not reveal the idea except in confidence until you've filed for a patent, and if possible spell out the advantages instead of how it works. For example, you could say you have a new method of closing garments that operates without a zipper and which is easy for all to use.

5. Carry out a patent search, remembering that just because you thought of it doesn't mean it's not been thought of by someone before (I met someone who said he had written an idea down and locked the paper inside his desk, and was furious when he saw the product for sale a few years later. Clearly, he said, someone had burgled him). You can try doing a search online but it's better to employ an expert or at least ask someone at a public patent collection to advise you. Be prepared to take days searching and analysing the results (you will probably need help on this).

A useful starting point, particularly good for cheap products, is Google Shopping which can be used to rank by price products available through websites.

If'it turns out that the idea is protected in the country you want to sell in, give up. If not protected but it's out there already, that's a big strike against it. It greatly adds to the odds against success as competitors are either already out there or can easily compete.

6. What is your intellectual property (IP) strategy -- e.g. Europe and USA ? Patent, trade mark ? Add more countries if you like but remember that you'll need to translate the patent specification into the local languages, and probably advertising, brochures, etc. into them as well -- do you want to spend that ?

7. Make a working prototype. I can't remember how many times people would tell me that no they knew nothing about the industry, but yes, "in theory" the product would do the job. No need, they thought, to go to the trouble of making a working prototype to persuade a company to take them on. The problem is that they will immediately be shown the door.

If the prototype is to be shown at say a trade show or on Dragons' Den it needs to look good as well as working properly. Some companies offer to make prototypes and sometimes to help improve the product.

8. Should you sell, license, manufacture yourself ?

Some want to sell the idea and just collect some money. Usually in my experience some people are unrealistic in their expectations, like the man who thought of the idea of handheld flippers and didn't realise that the idea already existed. All he had was the general idea, not a specific design (this was pre Internet days).

Others like the idea of licensing it to a manufacturer, to keep some control of the product. This is a very complicated subject in itself, and is fraught with dangers (such as many companies refusing to sign non-disclosure agreements). 4% of the manufacturer's (not retailer's price) is usually the best the inventor can hope to be paid. Contract law is vital here.

Manufacturing the product yourself can be the most lucrative but also exposes the inventors to the most financial risk, and means they must spend a huge amount of time running all the aspects of the business. Rather than your own factory, it probably means sorting out an agreement with a supplier to make the product. This is very common -- it's Apple's method, for example.

9. Do you need outside finance ? Work out careful estimates, and decide how much you need. You may think crowdfunding sites are a good idea, or need business angels.

The remaining three Ps:

10. Price (how much does it cost to make, what retail price is anticipated, and remember that often a retail markup is three to four times the manufacturer's price. It may cost too much for the market. Financial projections are a good idea)

11. Place (where to sell it -- online, through shops, etc. You should know by now the answer)

12. Promotion (which I've put last as the Place determines the publicity. Who is the ideal customer, what to call it, how to advertise it -- is social media vital, for example ? Despite what some people told me, not everyone will love your product, so market research to gather information is important)

Finally there should be an executive summary, which is a sober and realistic summing up of the 4 Ps. It's written last but is read first by a potential buyer or investor, and should be enough to interest them.

It may help to think through in detail what needs to happen to get from the idea to the product being in the hands of the consumer. There will be lots of steps, although not all have to be done by you. It may also help to imagine yourself in the mind of a manufacturer or supplier you might want to approach, as they want to make money too. Getting others to read the draft plan will probably help, too, especially if they have relevant skills. And don't forget to quantify as much as possible, for (realistic) figures will be your friend.

In the event only you can decide on what to do. To gather information and advice, it's a good idea to talk to local public libraries that deal in patents, join an inventor's club, and attending events aimed at business such as at the British Library's Business and IP Centre.

For Europe, see a list of patent libraries

For the USA, see a list of patent libraries

26 February 2015

Omni Business Hour on Kingston Green Radio

When I worked for the British Library I often spoke on the radio about intellectual property (IP).

I'm doing so again on the 18 March on the Omni Business Hour on Kingston Green Radio here in the London borough of Kingston, where I now live.

I was invited by John Gower, who will be interviewing me. I met him as a fellow mentor in the Young Enterprise programme at Kingston University. I can honestly say I've never met a more enthusiastic person when it comes to talking, breathing and living business. We've never had a conversation on anything else !

While John knows a huge amount about business, intellectual property was one area where he was less knowledgeable. He heard me explaining about patents and trade marks to his team at the university's Enterprise in Action module, where the students run a real if small business and see what the real world is all about (The product was BeeBra, which won a prize in the Bright Ideas Final). So I was invited onto his monthly show.

For an hour I'll be quizzed by John about what intellectual property is about and why it's important. Listeners can call in as well. I've also chosen four clips of music.

I'd be delighted if you can listen in -- IP is a tough subject for businesses, as so many don't understand it properly. It will be broadcast on Wednesday 18 March between 3 and 4, UK time, and you can listen in on this website.

John Gower's Omni Facebook website is here, while the Omni Facebook page for Kingston businesses is here.

I love the fact that it's going out live, as that gives a real buzz, and a hour gives me a chance to explain some key concepts to protecting creativity and getting a competitive advantage. I'm looking forward to it !

24 February 2015

Teaching intellectual property at school

Recently I ran a class teaching intellectual property to high school students at the American School in London.

I've done this several times now at the same school for their Technology and culture elective course, which is taught by Mariam Mathew. I hadn't been in a school since 1972, and it did feel strange at first !

For the first time I was the teacher, with a class plan covering what I wanted the twelve students to learn. I was wielding the chalk, only there wasn't a piece of chalk in sight. Apple® equipment was everywhere, including in front of them (the school uses that platform exclusively), and the students were clustered around a long table rather than in the rows of desks I was used to. The atmosphere was relaxed and talkative rather than formal.

There was also a readiness to have informal learning in groups, where conclusions were given by a spokesperson. I don't remember that ever happening at the schools I atteneded, yet these are perfectly normal in everyday life, especially work. Here's a photo of the class.


The aim of the course is to bring out the interaction between technology such as software and people -- it is easy to take it all for granted. When I was at school computers were never mentioned, while now schools would be considered failures if they were not tightly integrated into everything.

My 75 minute class explained the basics of intellectual property -- patents for function, designs for looks, trade marks for branding products or services, and copyright for authorship -- and I passed around a coffee cup sleeve and lid to show how such mundane objects contained these elements. One had the patent number on it of Beverage container holder, as illustrated below -- the classic sleeve with a green logo which wraps round Starbuck® coffee cups. It covers the machinery for making the sleeves.

I also mentioned software a lot. The two most popular posts on my blog are about Snapchat® and WhatsApp, which are patented apps. I've never used them, but when I asked if anyone used them nearly every hand shot up. Like it or not, software is already part of young people's lives even if they don't stop to think about how they are thought of, made available and protected as concepts. The mind boogles at what might be happening in thirty years' time.

I set the class the task of identifying as many features in Apple as they could think of and presenting their results, and finished by briefly demonstrating how to use Espacenet. I then let them loose to have a go on the database themselves.I think they enjoyed that most of all ! It set their imaginations free to look for anything that interested them, although a few were dazed at the prospect and couldn;t think of anything until I prompted them.

Of course, a 75 minute class could only be a taster of what a complex subject like this is about. I found the experience stimulating and fun, and would be happy to run similar classes at schools or colleges in the London area.

18 January 2015

Magic Leap and its augmented reality patents

Magic Leap is a Florida company, backed by Google, who have published some unusual patent applications about using googles to achieve a state of augmented reality, if not nirvana. They believe it is a wholly new approach.

I will admit that I had never heard of them when I accidentally came across a discussion of a brand-new patent application by them. It was from The Verge, and was titled See the beautiful, nightmarish patent illustrations for a Google-funded augmented reality device. They are indeed weird, and suggests that the invention is versatile in its use. It seems that you will always be in another reality -- a dystopia, perhaps, as the article comments. Commands can be found on your hand, or you can see data on your shopping cart. It seems it can do just about anything to entertain or instruct you. Here's one of the drawings.


And here's another.



The US patent application, US20150016777, was published on the 15 January 2015. Clicking on "Images" at the top of the link to Planar waveguide apparatus with diffraction element(s) and system employing same will take you to the full patent specification. It is 60 pages long, with the 14 claims to protection (which will be assessed by patent examiners) at the end. Interestingly, claims 15 to 27 are noted as "cancelled" and were not published.

That is from the official US Patent and Trademark Office website. I normally link to the Espacenet website, which links to patent documents from numerous countries, but at present the actual PDF is not available there.

On the same day was published the corresponding World or PCT patent application, WO2015006784 is available at the PCT's own site, PatentScope. It is an A2 document, which tells us that it was published without a search report listing relevant prior art that might mean it would not be allowed protection. An A1 would mean it is published with a search report. The A3 search report will at some stage be published on the website as an additional document.

These World or PCT search reports are more valuable than the US reports (which are anyway only published on the granted patents, not the applications), as they spell out which are cited as  X or Y documents (done before, or obvious improvements) against parts of the application.

WO2015006784 is a link to where the A3 will eventually be published on the Espacenet website.

This is a list of the (at the time of writing, six) US patent documents in the name of Magic Leap. All, at present, are only applications (you can tell as they are preceded with the year). Here's one illustration, from their System and method for augmented and virtual reality.


Rony Abovitz, the CEO, president and founder of the company, is named as an inventor on three of them. At present Espacenet lists 27 US patent records in Rony Abovitz' name. He is a busy man -- he has sold a company, MAKO Surgical, for $1.65 billion. He founded it in 2004. Business Inside UK has an interesting article on his life.

Google and other venture capitalists funded the company with $542 million in October 2014.

Apparently (I missed it) there was a lot of speculation about what Magic Leap were planning to do. An interesting article by Gizmodo is called How Magic Leap is secretly creating a new alternate reality, published in November 2014. Another, from YouRift, was published in December: Will Magic Leap kill the Oculus Rift ? This is a reference to a company in much the same field, Oculus VR. They were purchased by Facebook in March 2014 for $2 billion in cash and stock. Their are responsible for the World application Perception based predictive tracking for head mounted displays.

It remains to be seen if this invention will take off or if will turn out to be a damp squib, like Google Glass, which was recently taken off the market for more work. Augmented reality using goggles does seem to be the current fad.

Magic Leap has a company website. Their slogan is, It's time to bring magic back into the world, and they are currently looking for wizards to work for them.

16 January 2015

Young Enterprise and a trade fair at Kingston University

For the last few months I have been a mentor for Young Enterprise. School or university students try running a genuine if small business, with under £1000 in capital, and see how hard it is to run it, let alone to make a profit. They are lucky -- when I was at school there was never a chance to try what the real world was like.

The scheme I am involved in is with students from Kingston University: a "live business experience module", says the Start-up a Business website. The class is conducted by Dr Corrine Beaumont.

It's been an interesting, and novel, experience for me. There are about a dozen teams, with each person having a specific role. Mentors are assigned to each team, normally a business advisor of some sort. I think I'm the only retired one in the bunch.

We try to hint and make suggestions without telling the teams what to do. It's their business, after all, and the point is for them to learn for themselves what it's all about. Which is, there is a lot to keep in mind, a lot to do, and it's hard work to make money. Just choosing the products took many weeks of debate.

My most enjoyable experience so far was being part of a Dragons' Den scenario where several teams made a two minute pitch for (imaginary) funding, and three of us asked questions. As in interviewing, I'm sure it was more fun for us asking the questions than it was for them. It was good if it made them sweat !

Yesterday there was another interesting event. The teams paid £10 to set up a stall in a large hall at Kingston University. Having worked out what product to sell they would now advertise it, and in some cases have stock available. Here's a picture of the venue.


Most of those milling about were some of the 21,000 students, and some of the products were aimed at that market. To my surprise I happily spent two hours visiting all the stands and chatting to the teams, occasionally commenting on some aspect of what they were doing,

Here are some of the products, with a few more photos. Apologies for chopping some people's heads off !

The team that I mentor is called Complex Simplicity. Their product is Brace yourself, an undergarment for sporty young men to encourage good posture by tightly fastening across the chest. I tried it -- it certainly had a remarkable effect. Here's the team !


And here's me holding it. Sorry I'm not smiling. They anticipate selling it for about £20. It's black to appeal to its macho market.



Another team's product was the Rebrella, a poncho-like covering available in several designs and colours. The idea is that if it rains you slide it over a bag so that only the straps show. Simple but effective, and at just £3 I bought one for my wife. Here's Rebrella being talked about on the module blog site.

Then there was Beebra, a sports bra that comes in three sizes. Care was taken in the choice of fabric, and there is a zipped pouch so that keys and cards can safely be carried. Why aren't women's clothes designed with pockets ? Here are two of the team with the product.


Another product is Oliver George S.A., with an expensive "Kingston" wristwatch complete with a plush wooden box, the only product aimed at the luxury market. They have their own website.

Then there's Powerpal, a device sourced from China which uses solar power or overhead lights to power up mobile phones -- a charge provides enough power for eight cycles, so you can keep recharging it without access to the mains. Handy for hikers. Likely to be priced at about £40. Here it is.


The cheapest product on offer was Speacup Stickers, at £1.80, which are packets of labels to place on any sort of cup. When hot water is poured in, a message appears in seconds. Clever. Another product with their own website.

Then there is Touch, woollen gloves with a pouch for holding say an oyster card, and two fingernails showing free to enable using a phone and so on. Priced at £5. Perfect for using the bus on a cold winter's day.

The Uni Mug was aimed specifically at Kingston University students. An insulated drinks container, with a wraparound sheet in the university's blue and white colours. Here are two of the team.



There was also Ella, a support for a baby's head (£40), Veles, a "versatile sketchbook accessory" (great for artists, a nice assortment of differently-sized pouches), Imperial Inc, a range of numerous designs on white t-shirts (as shown on Twitter), and there were a few others which I regret I didn't note down.

Finally there was Zest, another drinks container. Inside the container is a perforated cylinder into which the users squashes fruit or vegetables. Water is poured in and the flavours gradually diffuse into the water. A neat idea. Priced at £15.


Of course I volunteered to be a mentor to help make a difference, but I've also found it an enriching experience for me. I love the positivity and enthusiasm. It almost makes me feel young again !

The teams varied in their approaches. Most use, or want to use, social media. I noticed that on a few stands it was not obvious when approaching what the product was, or the price (maybe that was the idea, to get you to ask). Some stands offered a discount on the day, or if two or three were bought. I liked that psychology, as everyone likes a bargain.

In theory the businesses are wound up at the end of March and the teams are assessed. If they want they can continue to run the business,

More power to Young Enterprise: I've always believed in learning by doing. I'm sure I would have enjoyed school more if it was more like life.

13 January 2015

National patent shares in major EU countries

This post examines the patent shares of five major EU countries from 1990 to 2014, using their publications in the PCT system. It is a follow-up to my Country shares in PCT patent applications, 2014 versus 2013 post, which I recommend should be read first. PCT stands for the Patent Cooperation Treaty, a world-wide agreement to simplify and cheapen patenting which countries can join (only residents or citizens of member states can use it).

I wanted to see how Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain did during this period. How had their numbers fared, by date-span or against each other ? Italy only joined the PCT in 1985 and Spain in 1989 and hence the data provided starts from 1990. I suspect that figures were low for these countries at least in the initial years due more to low interest or awareness of the opportunity, rather than necessarily to low innovation.

I found that during the 1980-84 period the three EU countries then in the PCT (Germany, France and the UK) together added up to 19.7% of all PCT total publications. Possibly this figure is boosted by the headquarters of the PCT being based locally, at WIPO in Geneva. The EU major countries' share rose to a high of 29.3% for the 1990-94 date-span but then declined, to just 13.6% in 2010-14. The Far East, and to some extent other countries, were fast increasing their numbers of applications, but the figures suggest that the EU is clearly in decline as a technological innovator. I am aware that EU countries such as Belgium and Sweden are missing but their inclusion would not significantly change the picture.

The first table gives the actual numbers of patent applications under the PCT within five-year date-spans from 1990 to 2014.

 

Germany

France

UK

Italy

Spain

Total

1990-94

14226

5570

12213

1441

351

33801

1995-99

34537

11429

19526

3454

1172

70118

2000-04

61807

19973

30108

6584

2278

120750

2005-09

71853

24358

28867

9493

4278

138849

2010-14

68888

28329

25535

11104

5657

139513


While this is of interest more analysis is needed.

The second table gives the national percentage of share of the major country EU total by date-span. This makes it clear that Germany has been the EU's powerhouse of innovation as well as of industry, and makes it clearer that the UK's performance has disastrously declined. Its "market share" has almost halved over the period. Italy and Spain greatly improved their figures, admittedly from a low base.

 

Germany

France

UK

Italy

Spain

1990-94

42.0%

16.4%

36.1%

4.2%

1.0%

1995-99

49.2%

16.2%

27.8%

4.9%

1.6%

2000-04

51.1%

16.5%

24.9%

5.4%

1.8%

2005-09

51.7%

17.5%

20.7%

6.8%

3.0%

2010-14

49.3%

20.3%

18.3%

7.9%

4.0%


The third table shows in a different wayt how each country has fared using 1990-94 as a baseline. Each country starts at 100 for that period, and if the number of patent applications goes up by say 20% that changes the country's number to 120.

 

Germany

France

UK

Italy

Spain

1995-99

242

205

159

239

333

2000-04

434

358

246

456

649

2005-10

505

437

236

658

1218

2010-14

484

508

209

770

1611


It dramatically shows Spain's rise (from a low base) but caution is needed as it may merely reflect more use of the PCT by Spanish patent attorneys rather than a rise in innovation. This is where looking at applications through the national and European Patent Convention routes may help.

The population size is important, of course. A country may be particularly large or small. The fourth and final table is in some ways the most revealing. For each nation, it shows the population and on the next line the ratio of PCT patent applications for 1990-94, 2000-04 and 2010-14. A figure of 2500 would mean that there was one application per 2500 people. The lower the figure the more innovative the population. Population statistics (for 1990, 2000 and 2010) are taken from the Geohive site.

 

Germany

France

UK

Italy

Spain

1990-94

80.4 M

56.8 M

57.2 M

56.8 M

38.8 M

 

1 to 5651

1 to 10197

1 to 4683

1 to 39417

1 to 110541

2000-04

83.5 M

59.2 M

58.9 M

56.9 M

40.2 M

 

1 to 1350

1 to 2964

1 to 1956

1 to 8642

1 to 17647

2010-14

83.0 M

63.2 M

62.0 M

60.5 M

46.1 M

 

1 to 1204

1 to 2230

1 to 2428

1 to 5448

1 to 8149


7 January 2015

Protheses patents in and after World War I

One result of the tragic loss of limbs during World War I was a huge increase in the number of patents for protheses -- artificial limbs.

This can be tracked by using the free Espacenet database. Its classification schedules can be searched to identify A61F2 as the patent class for protheses. This can be used in the Advanced search as the CPC class and combined with e.g. publication years 1911-13 (expressed as 1911:1913) and with national country codes (GB, United Kingdom; US, United States; FR, France; and DE, Germany). It does rely on both coverage of patents during the period by indexers, and on accurate usage of the classes. It also includes applications made by foreign residents. As countries took different attitudes to assessing novelty other discrepancies turn up although they are not obvious. Some patents which are clearly not relevant are included as they were misclassified.

I analysed the publication years 1911-22 by those four countries and assembled the following table. As some applicants applied for patents in foreign countries there is some overlap. The numbers of patent documents are clickable links to get to the lists (which are in order of "priority", the original filing) and from them to the actual patents ("original documents").

 

UK

USA

France

Germany

1911-13

 8

 61

 4

0

1914-16

 22

 61

 25

0

1917-19

 195

 115

 154

9 

1920-22

 117 

 116

 166

215


German patents were apparently not indexed by the CPC for much of our period, hence their absence for most of World War I.

The steep rise in patents clearly reflects concern, often by private inventors, about the subject. France and the UK had many more maimed soldiers than the USA, hence presumably the much bigger jumps in numbers.

It is also interesting how many Austrians and Germans were attempting to protect their inventions in foreign countries even during the war. The database's priority field can be used to ask for the original country, although it cannot be relied on. This is a list of the 22 German priority filings in the UK during 1911-1922, and of the 4 Austrian priority filings in the UK. Coded respectively as DE and AT. In theory as enemy aliens they would have been refused granted British patents. They do provide a translation of the concept, of course.

One thing we can't do, without a knowledge of the field, is to identify key patents. Similarly, only those familiar with the field can identify important inventors. Kim Norton's A brief history of prosthetics says that no major developments occurred in the field in World War I.

It also mentions Marcel Desoutter, a British aviator who lost a leg below the knee in a flying accident in 1913. Apparently he developed with the help of his brother Charles, an engineer, the first aluminium prothesis (this made it half the weight of a wooden leg). The database credits in our period Charles, alone, with three British patents, two of which were patented also in France and the USA. Here is the list. Desoutter continues to be an important British engineering company, mainly in tools. Below is one of the drawings.



Below is a drawing of an artificial hand from a patent by three Americans, US1380835.