Accelerating business success requires an IP focus

Why it's important for accelerator programmes to consider protection for start-ups from the outset

Two established accelerator programmes – Seedcamp and Springboard – have grown considerably in the time they’ve been operating and others are emerging.

Seedcamp now commands a global network of members and mentors, while Springboard, which is based in London’s Google Campus and IdeaSpace in Cambridge, offers a 13-week mentorship programme. Such has been its impact, it’s now part of TechStars, started in the USA in 2006.

Oxygen Accelerator, a more recent programme based in Birmingham, offers a mentor-led ‘boot camp’ which leads to the opportunity to pitch to investors. Among its mentors is Sheffield-based Lee Strafford, founder of PlusNet, which was sold to BT for £67m.

One major focus of accelerator programmes is to introduce entrepreneurs to those who have been there, done that.

Judging the success of accelerators

However, the success of an individual programme can only be properly judged by examining the long-term business success it has helped generate. According to Seed-DB, a database that tracks the growth of accelerator programmes, there have been 171 accelerator programmes created worldwide.

One issue is, there’s no uniform model which accelerator programmes adhere to. While designed to foster grass roots talent and provide long-term survival tools there’s a risk.

We feel there may not be sufficient focus on developing the underlying enabling technology of the future and how to properly derive full benefit from such technology research.

An insight into the world of intellectual property (IP) rights undoubtedly helps fully leverage the benefits of a piece of new technology. You might say that as patent advisers we would say that, but it’s a genuine concern.

Many successful participants in accelerator programmes are service-based software companies and much of the work accelerators can do will be fantastic.

Secrecy management

Yet one of the most important aspects of properly protecting an idea or a piece of technology prior to bringing it to market is secrecy management. It’s all too easy for ‘early disclosure’ to occur. This is when details of an invention are publicised ahead of applying for patent protection, for example.

However, in some particularly fast-moving markets, reality dictates that maintaining secrecy levels for long durations is not practical or in the best interests of the business. Where this applies, obtaining patent protection as quickly as possible should be a core priority, in order to properly protect against unwanted disclosure.

The point of disclosure is a critical moment for innovators, as once an invention or idea is in the public domain, it’s impossible to turn back the clock. If the invention is publicly disclosed before a patent application has been filed, then it is highly likely that any patent obtained for that technology will be invalid.

In general however, mitigating against the unnecessary loss of valuable ideas and inventions lies in careful management of the innovation process. For example, when preparing to share innovations, getting an informed assessment of commercial potential and how best to set up agreements relating to confidentiality, ownership and perhaps lump-sum or future royalty payments is imperative.

Good advisers will also have access to related patent applications which may cause freedom-to-operate issues. Furthermore, they could suggest new avenues of collaboration, as well as specialist knowledge of new standards that may link their inventions to dominant user technologies.

With so much to gain from managing IP effectively from the start, accelerator programme facilitators would be wise to consider the involvement of patent advisors during discussions about the commercialisation of any technology or other IP the business holds. Not regarding IP as a core element of any business strategy could come back to haunt the UK’s most promising software start-ups.

John-Paul Rooney is a partner and patent attorney at Withers & Rogers, one of the UK’s leading firms of patent and trade mark attorneys

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  1. online@johnnymartin.co.uk
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    Understanding IP is absolutely crucial – it’s one of the key things investors look for. One great source of information on IP is the British Library Business & IP Centre – they have free courses and also online courses on IP if you can’t get to London.