Intellectual Property Services | June 2020

How to turn innovation into enterprise

Where do world-changing ideas come from? You don’t have to look far to find out. On a near-daily basis we read news stories about groundbreaking studies, discoveries or inventions, all invariably containing the phrase “researchers at the University of…”

A university is not just an institution of learning or a provider of qualifications – nor is it simply the place many of us spend a few years gaining valuable life experience. Up and down the country, our universities are hotbeds of innovation and experimentation. The very nature of academic research – both undergraduate and postgraduate – means that as we speak, ideas that will truly transform the future of medicine, design, engineering and more are being developed inside universities.

Research from the US shows that university research has played a key role in 40% of inventions since the 1950s. In the past, the work of university students has given us ideas as important as Google, but an idea doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be valuable. It could be a game-changer or simply a small innovation that alters an existing process. As a student, you might be working on something that could be turned into a successful business with the right help – and that’s where our expertise comes in.

Think you’ve got a unique idea or innovative research and want to explore its business viability?

Commercialising your research is not a simple process, but it doesn’t have to be as complex as you might think. We want to make sure that if you’ve got a great idea, you are encouraged at every step to turn it into a business opportunity after you leave university – instead of being put off by what can seem a daunting task.

Whether your studies have seen you working on a pioneering design, an updated scientific process or even an idea that could lead to a new technology in the future, don’t assume that transforming it into a business is an unrealistic prospect. Anyone whose innovation has changed an industry was once in your position.

When it comes to taking those important first steps towards commercialisation prior to graduation, your university’s enterprise team should be your first port of call. If you’re not already familiar with the enterprise team at your institution, find out their details and make an initial appointment, ensuring that you bring along any elements of your research that are key to understanding the basics of it.

Among other things, your university enterprise team can help you to:

  • Ascertain the commercial potential of your idea or research
  • Apply for funding or grants that could help get you started
  • Access specialist careers advice that helps you find out more about running a business and decide whether it is right for you
  • Get mentoring and advice from alumni who may have taken a similar path in the past
  • Make connections with relevant legal representatives or business practitioners
  • Understand the legal elements of the commercialisation process such as claiming the rights to your intellectual property

It’s also a good idea at an early stage to speak directly to your course tutor or lecturer and let them know that you are wondering about the potential of your research. While they may not be able to offer direct advice on funding, running a business or protecting intellectual property in the way that your enterprise team can, they will truly understand the ins and outs of what you have been working on. They may have seen previous students find commercial success in the past and be able to guide you on which areas of your work are worth focusing on.

Many universities also offer research grants that can help you to develop an idea. These are often only awarded to a small number of students and can be highly competitive, but it is worth finding out what your institution offers, whether it could benefit you and what the application process entails.

Outside of your university, there is government help available via a number of schemes to help you get started in business. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) also offers a wide range of resources to advise you on obtaining the right legal protection for your research.

What constitutes ‘innovative research’ or a ‘unique idea’?

There are many things that separate higher education from secondary education, but chief among them is the fact that you’re no longer learning in a simulated or closed-off environment. Every year, hundreds of thousands of university students undertake research that has the potential to make a real-world impact – and many of them never seize on the opportunity to commercialise it.

There is no concrete definition of innovative or unique research, but if you’re working on one of the following then commercialisation is well worth looking into:

  • A previously unseen design for a product
  • A technology which makes a process more efficient
  • A solution to an existing problem in your chosen industry
  • Any kind of evolution in medical science
  • A newly developed chemical formula
  • An update to an existing technology that fundamentally alters it

However, these are just examples and the above list is by no means exhaustive. What’s most important to remember is that innovation does not necessarily constitute a major step forward. You could have devised a minor tweak to an existing industrial process or business practice – if it can be practically applied in your field, has technical and/or commercial advantages over existing solutions and you’ve never seen it done before, then it’s classed as an ‘inventive step’ and the opportunity to monetise it should be thoroughly investigated.

If you’re in any doubt, speak to the relevant person at your university – whether it’s a member of your department or a member of the enterprise team. You could find that you’re very glad you did.

How to gain intellectual property rights on an idea

So your academic work has business potential. Whether it’s wide-ranging research or a single idea, if it’s led to the development of new products or processes, you should think carefully about your intellectual property (IP) rights.

This is a crucial step in commercialising your research. Commercially valuable ideas are hard to create but incredibly easy to copy. IP loss is more likely than IP theft, but the last thing you want is to be concentrating so hard on turning your idea into a business that someone else benefits from it before you can – so make sure that you fully understand IP and that it’s high on your priority list.

Of course, creation of new knowledge is what university study is all about, but there are certain subject areas in which IP can be particularly common. These include design and technology, engineering, mathematics and biosciences.

Depending on the nature of your IP, it will fall into one of a number of different categories, and you will need to apply to the IPO in order to obtain the relevant protection for your work.

Securing the right IP protection is no guarantee of commercial success. However, if you have confidence in the commercial potential of your idea, one of the most important things that you can do is to keep it as secret as possible until the right protections are in place.

The main categories of IP protection under UK law are:

Patent

Patents are the most commonly sought form of IP protection for commercialising university research. They relate to how something works, preventing the unauthorised usage of a process or invention. In order to qualify for a patent, the idea must be new, it must be directly applicable within an industry and it must include a degree of invention (ie. it should not be immediately obvious to someone with a general knowledge of that industry). It is valid for up to 20 years in the territory in which it is issued.

When applying for a patent you will be asked to provide a full and detailed description as well as any relevant diagrams which demonstrate that your innovation is novel, it includes an ‘inventive step’ and that it has been tested and shown to work. The IPO may then come back to you with questions in order to further understand the invention and its context.

Copyright

Copyrights are commonly applied in creative industries, because they protect recorded works of many forms including literature, film, art, music and radio broadcasts. A copyright gives the author legal ownership, preventing the unauthorised usage or exhibition of their work and equipping them to take legal action in the case of plagiarism or infringement.

Trademark

This identifies your particular product or organisation – and it can be issued for a name, slogan, symbol or otherwise as long as it is not already in common usage. A trademark is registered for use within a particular territory.

Designs

Designs protect the visual appearance of physical articles, surface decorations, GUIs (graphical user interfaces), computer icons and the like.

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets protect pieces of information such as methods, ingredients or formulas that are secret and have commercial value.

Following university guidelines on intellectual property rights

If you have developed your innovation as part of your university studies, then it is governed not only by UK law but by the unique rules and regulations of your institution. It is crucial that these guidelines are followed carefully.

You should consult the university code of conduct for the specific rules on IP rights, as these will differ between individual universities. The enterprise team at your university will be able to assist you if you have specific questions relating to IP.

Broadly speaking, whether intellectual property belongs to the university or not depends on whether you are employed by the university.

If you are a student, it is likely that you will legally own any intellectual property that comes from research, providing that:

  • All creative input has come from you
  • You have not simply followed the instructions of a supervisor
  • You have not worked in conjunction with a supervisor or member of university staff

If you are both a student and an employee of the university (ie. an undergraduate undertaking part-time work, a graduate teaching assistant, a member of staff undertaking a part-time degree), then it is likely that only work carried out in your capacity as a student is your intellectual property.

Commercialising an idea – how to bring an idea to market

Once you are ready to commercialise your research, there are a number of routes that you can take in order to bring the idea to market – and doing it in the most effective way can benefit not only you and your industry but your university too.

While it is possible to enter the commercialisation process yourself, in the first instance it is worth fully exploring the options available from your university. Even if the in-house enterprise team do not have all the resources to assist in a particular field, they may be able to refer you to a specialist who can.

There are several ways in which your university may be able to help you through each step of the commercialisation process, including:

  • Evaluating where your research has the greatest commercial potential
  • Devising a patenting strategy
  • Helping to pay for patent applications and legal advice
  • Supporting applications for further development funding
  • Helping you to network within the industry and gain feedback on improving commercial prospects

Working towards commercialisation is a significant commitment and will place great demands on your time, but your chances of success are improved by working as a team with people at your university who have the relevant expertise. It is a two-way process in which you will be expected to help others, such as legal practitioners, to understand the significance of your work.

Of course, it’s possible that you’ve worked on an idea with real commercial potential, but you are not inclined to start up and run a business yourself. In these circumstances, it’s possible to commercialise your work by setting up a licensing agreement, by which you sell the idea to an existing business.

As the inventor, you will enter a contract for this company to manufacture your product or use your idea, while you receive a percentage of the income generated. There are three main types of licensing agreement:

  • An exclusive license, with only one company able to use your work
  • A sole licence, where both the company and you are able to use your work
  • A non-exclusive license, where any number of companies may be licensed to use your work

You might choose to take the route of starting a business first, and then continuing to develop your work within the structure of a business. In many cases, starting a business is a relatively straightforward process and you may need little more than a website.

However, this must comply with the university guidelines regarding IP as outlined above. If you take this route then there is a range of innovation funding available from the UK government which may benefit you.