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Innovation and Intellectual Property Management (IIPM) Laboratory

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Graham Bell, founder and managing director of Cubicibuc Ltd., an IP consulting firm. For the past 5-6 years, Bell has been listed on the IAM Strategy 300. An annual list, carefully composed by IAM, of The World’s Leading IP Strategists. According to IAM, Graham Bell’s “abundant international experience, deep standards essential patents expertise and excellent technical background (...), give him the edge as a strategist for global innovators”.

I talked with Bell about the research project we are currently conducting, a collaborative project between the University of Cambridge and Chalmers University of Technology.

"What do executives need to know about intellectual property to make better business decisions?"

The above question guides our research. But asking executives about their unknown-unknowns would not be a promising approach. Therefore turning to leading IP experts around the world to ask them about their experience. Graham Bell is one of these leading IP strategists, based in the UK.

Bell points out that here are very few instances where big problems are being seen by top management as IP (related) issues. “Aside from contentious legal events such as litigation, IP very rarely has ‘burning platforms’ that are “board-level” issues for an organisation. Hence, IP issues are too often low on the radar of senior executives.  Nevertheless, if you would dig deeper into the organization you would be able to unveil IP related risks and challenges that could have a direct and detrimental effect on the value of the company.” 

This can be highlighted by the following case which Bell encountered.

“A large multinational, manufacturing industrial components, lost a long time customer to a competitor. At the time, this was thought of as a ‘sales problem’. Taking an IP-centric view of this some time later, identified the underlying source as one of knowledge management, or perhaps knowledge leakage. It appeared the customer was unsatisfied with the performance of a component supplied by the manufacturer. They rightly called the support team of the manufacturer for help to diagnose the problems. After an unsuccessful back and forth between the manufacturer’s support engineers and the customer, the support team decided to provide its customers with a complete set of bug-reports to enable them to sort the problem themselves. The support team obviously thought this was a good idea – assisting their customer and providing value. Unfortunately, the customer took the existing product and the bug-reports to a competitor and asked them to “build a better one...”. Hence leading to the lost customer.

Such a scenario is probably not uncommon; but such a scenario is probably unlikley to be seen as an IP matter in the first instance. Better awareness on the value of knowledge – bug reports in this instance - could have prevented this loss of IP.”

This is merely one example of the general lack of awareness within organisations around the strategic importance of IP. Graham Bell finds some companies’ often naive view on IP, and lack of awareness of the true value of IP striking. “Especially considering, nowadays it is stated that up to 80% of the value companies generate is related to intangible assets. If the contribution of intangible assets is so substantial, one might expect a similar level of investment in management time to the management and protection of these assets. In other words, you would expect companies to invest more time in their IP strategy.”

IP strategy is a very vague term. Patent and trademark attorneys might define IP strategy as the drafting, prosecution and maintenance of intellectual property rights. Lawyers, when asked, might define the IP strategy as a carefully crafted strategy to protect and enforce your intellectual property rights.

In Bell’s view, however, IP strategy should not focus on the individual IP rights such as trademarks, patents or legal contracts. Rather an IP strategy should focus on how the complete “bundle” of IP assets supports the business itself. What makes a business unique? How does the IP contribute to the business goals – e.g. to revenue generation?

Quoting Bell: “Any executive should be able to tell what makes their business unique and where the value is that is driving their business – where is the “magic sauce”. For a CEO or CFO to answer this question, Bell concludes that they will have to recognize that a large portion of that value is driven from intangible assets. And if management acknowledges the added value of the intangible assets for its organisation, this will lead to a more proactive stance towards a strategic approach of IP.”

Do executives need to know more about IP? According to Bell, compared to other functions within a company like HR, IT or Marketing, the awareness of IP at executive level seems to be lagging behind. Yet, the question should not only be asked in relation to executives. There needs to be more IP awareness in all parts of the organisation. 

Quoting Bell: “Greater awareness will contribute to a more proactive attitude towards IP and the IP strategy."

If you saw a colleague walking out the office door with a suitcase full of the company's money, you would most likely stop them. You should do the same when you see a colleague walking out of the door with a head full of know-how and  knowledge.” But the solution should not simply rely on confidentiality clauses in an employment agreement, the employee can then still walk out the door…. “The solution lies in a well designed and properly implemented IP strategy throughout the organisation, that clearly demonstrates the value of the company’s IP. This almost becomes internal marketing, and a pride in what makes the business. Combined with formal awareness and training of all staff a company is able to build a culture that better identifies, manages and protects these critical assets''.

“It is truly a business and organisational matter, not merely a legal one.”

IP is often reactive. Often awareness only comes after a big failure – e.g. a legal challenge from a competitor. Many companies go through such pain before they implement a proactive IP strategy. In the absence of burning platforms, IP awareness building is most effectively created by education, with “war-stories”, case studies and benchmarking. This should be the preferred, ‘less painful’ option.

My conversation with Graham Bell led me to think about my own first steps in the field of IP management. When I kicked off my career in IP, my first ever job title was “knowledge protector”. The manufacturing company that hired me was in search of someone able to understand their technology, business processes and was able to comprehend the legal side of things. Their knowledge, in other words their ‘added value’, was not properly managed and they needed someone to do so. Hence the wording “knowledge protector”. I have not seen this title ever since, nor did I come across this job title before. But it does show the awareness of the people hiring me that it was not all about patents and trademarks, but more so about the business processes which involved the acquisition, development, distribution and capitalization of the IP. Because the job title did not resonate well in the industry, my job title soon changed  into “IP manager”. Nevertheless, my responsibilities were much broader than merely merely managing the patents, trademarks and copyrights of the organisation. Developing the IP strategy for a company is all about proactively identifying, managing and capitalizing on the related intangible assets to sustain the business and support its growth.

According to Graham Bell “this research project could assist in the creation of more awareness amongst executives and other staff, triggering them to start thinking about IP proactively.”

About the author: Charlotte Wittkampf has extensive in-house IP management expertise with responsibility for managing global portfolios, including both soft and industrial IP as well as related commercial contracting, legal advice and training for different departments of a business and the board with a strong focus on connecting IP with the business.

(c) Charlotte Wittkampf (2021)

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