Thursday 8 December 2011

Lower Cost IP Business Advice

One of Hargreaves's recommendations was that SMEs needed access to lower cost IP and commercial advice. The BIS and IPO announced today that the IPO are going to consult businesses, business advisers and IP specialists on how this might be achieved. I can already see the professional bodies girding up their loins to defend the profession and say there is nothing wrong. FICPI have launched a survey designed to show that almost all firms of patent agents offer some free advice and do their marketing at events where entrepreneurs gather. Its true we do and Hargreaves knew that so his conclusion was not made in ignorance. What we need to work out is how the advice can be delivered in a way that is both trustworthy and usable by individual businesses.
  • The call to the IPO. This is the most obvious first step for many. Not a bad idea. It connects you to someone paid £17k pa who has the whole of the wisdom of the IPO to call on.
  • The British Library Business and IP section is a great place to go and get information and do your market research.
  • Inventors clubs. These allow inventors to get together and share information. Leeds is just one example.
  • On line resources such as  a BetterMouseTrap and IdeasUploaded that will link you to designers and others and provide plenty of shared learning experiences.
  • University |Tech Transfer or KT offices. UCL and Greenwich have been particularly keen lately to help all local comers.
This is just a sprinkling of the offers for those intrepid enough to do the research. The mix of business and IP varies considerably from almost all IP at the top of the list to almost all business at the bottom. Mix was important to the Hargreaves recommendation and the professional classes are not very good at mixing it. Indeed we barely try.

So why are the start ups on the Silicon roundabout telling Cameron they are unhappy. Free advice is not enough for them. Its either an untrustworthy grant aided offer from the inexperienced (OK that's harsh but one thing an SME knows is that he is not competent to judge quality and price is often the best indicator of value) or pure marketing designed to sell something paid for (the classic offering we professionals make).

A conundrum
Could we design an ABS that would be *for profit* but not at the super margins of the City law firms but still of interest to shareholders. It would need staff and it would need to mix them up a bit and therein is the hard part because the trend today is for lawyers to become ever more specialised and what we are saying no you cannot do trademark oppositions all day, you need to be able to hack some proper advice about where the marketing budget should be spent as well. Its a tall order and people with those skill sets tend to be CEOs of large organisations not settling in the provinces on a £17k salary. Right we cannot staff it with individual super consultants so it has to be a consultancy that brings teams together and works with the classic pyramid of effort. Hey aren't the accountants rather good at their consulting offers. Oh SMEs cannot afford to go to Accenture. If our ABS IP/Business consultancy is to make a profit it either takes a range of clients and very soon - like large patent agencies and grown up venture funds (3i anyone)  - decides that start ups are not worth bothering with, or it takes real investments in the start ups. Might work. Would the start ups want to share their equity with their consultant. its not a novel business model. To some extent ?What If  do it and it might sound a bit like Intellectual Ventures. Anyone in?


  1. Good post! Some interesting conundrums to solve, the key one being how to we provide high-quality specialist advice for low cost (e.g. on a £17k salary rather than a £85k salary)?

    I guess you have to 1) cut out the specialists, 2) spread them over large numbers, or 3) get someone else to subsidise.

    I don’t think 1) would work, usefulness is proportional to experience but so is pay. Start ups are wary of low quality offerings (you get what you pay for most of the time).

    2) is a more realistic possibility – one specialist could design interactive resources for many. There is a dearth of well-informed, simple and clear legal materials out there. May be a lead could be taken from projects such as Kahn Academy or Stanford’s interactive classes. Also a team whose members have a specialism in one area (e.g. commercial but not legal experience) could be trained and managed by a single person with both legal and commercial experience. However, in the market’s current state, it would require deep initial investment with low returns.

    The subsidies of 3) could come from either the State (UK or EU depending on your political persuasion ) or as you suggest VCs, Angels or other investment organisations. The return for a State would be increased growth (and tax revenues), for investors may be better information on their investments (and so reducing losses).

    As with most things a mix of 2) and 3) could provide a realistic base, with a room for some practical experiments to determine what works.

  2. My business has a need for a shiny tablet computer with fast mobile internet access. I quite like thos Apple one's but they are too expensive. I am therefore going to ask the Govt to initiate an inquiry into the provision of these tablets because the current costs, range of options, confusing sales pitches (Curry's!!!) etc are holding back British business.

    If all else fails, Id like the Govt to just buy me one.

    On a more serious note, if people care to read the comments on the previous item, "Do Electronics...grow on trees", they may appreciate that there are a large number of sole practitioners and small firms out there that provide a more cost-effective service, but are struggling to find clients for the reasons given.

    If the Govt wishes to employ me, a qualified and experienced attorney to provide advice then I shall make myself available. I ask for the £85K salary above and a little office on a local business/science park, together with a car (3-series would do, but a 5-series would add weight to my advice). The costs could be covered by clients paying a fair amount to cover my office and employment costs. The hourly rate would probably be less than half that charged by traditional firms. I'll be happy, the government happy and the clients happy!

    Will that ever happen? No, because the clients who moan today will still moan about paying a fair amount.

  3. Thanks for the mention, though does far more than ‘link you to designers and others’.

    Generalisation can be hazardous but I’m going to try some. From my perspective of working mainly with inventors and start-ups, an irritation is that government, IPO and many patent professionals don’t comprehend just how little cash SMEs have to play with, and what a sick joke the patent system has become. Nor do they understand that when you’re trying to turn an idea into a commercial offering, IP is in reality only a small part of the picture.

    Too much conventional IP advice is big tail trying to wag small dog. To most individuals and SMEs, I’d say leave IP entirely out of the reckoning until you’ve got your development strategy sorted out. Only then should you think about how IP fits into that strategy. And it will fit in different ways from project to project. From experience, once the smarter inventors and SMEs get IP in proportion, they don’t need much further advice.

  4. Hi Graham. Sorry about the shorthand. I think you get to the essence of the Hargreaves recommendation. He could see that the IP advice had to be in the context of business advice. Starting your advice seeking with an IP specialist is simply the wrong thing to do- but it happens rather too often. Of course its also a concern to the government that IP should not be left out either as that can lead to losses for the UK economy. Is a Nobel Prize for the University adequate compensation for seeing European and US businesses making profit from innovation.

  5. Graphene point well made.

    The IP system is not a joke, Graham. It may be expensive but that is a different matter. The grant of monopoly's for inventions cannot be simplified. No matter what changes are made to the patent system, it could never be in a form acceptable to those such as yourself.

    The world's most innovative economies all make good use of the patent system and do a lot better than the UK because of it. I see sites such as abettermoustrap and the comments from those such as Trevor Bailess as unhelpful scaremongering.

    The scaremongering resulted in researchers employed by the Uniiversity of Manchester to fail to patent their ground-breaking technogies. The UK is now far behind in the race to further develop and commercialise graphene. Take a look at the reports on Graphen on the UKIPO's website and then please tell me why the problem is with our paten system (harmonised worldwide to an unimaginably great degree)

  6. From FIPCPI survey sent out today:

    "Two thirds (66 per cent) of surveyed SMEs indicated that they would be interested in
    having access to an intermediary who can provide basic advice on IPR (applications,
    maintenance, licensing, disputes or enforcement) in place of a legal advisor or attorney –
    with interest even higher amongst the smallest firms who had started trading recently."

    This is just ridiculous. They want the advice of someone with the training and knowledge of a legal advisor or attorney, but don't want it to be a legal advisor or attorney.

    I have no sympathy for UK businesses, small, medium or large that fail or are not as successful as they could be due to their ignorance of IP rights, potentially their own or those of third parties, because they fail to budget for appropriate advice.

    Venture capitalists and business walk away from potential technology licensing deal on a daily basis, because of the lack of any sensible IP position (patents or FTO) from the technology provider. And, before anyone says samll business can't afford the work, I see deals fail when the business concerned has had a realistic and considerable amount of funding, but failed to invest in IP advice, because it was seen as an unnecessary insurance policy.

    Sorry to be so harsh, but we can't ignore the truth and reality of business just to pander to UK businesses who want a fast buck on the cheap.