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The future of the sector approach to IP practice

By Joshy Thomas, solicitor in the LexisPSL IP & IT team [1]

Growth in our economy is the key issue today. On 25 May 2012, David Willetts, the minister of state for universities and science, outlined the government’s vision for high-tech growth in a speech at the University of East Anglia.

The key points for you to take away from that speech are:

In a shrinking legal market, companies are all motivated by achieving growth and longevity or at least surviving. Many law firms use a sector-specific approach to promote themselves to their clients and target clients. They do this by building teams of lawyers that apparently understand the particular drivers and pressures within an industry. Legal services and advice are tailored accordingly for these sector clients.

The government has also looked at sectors under its plans for high-tech growth in the economy. David Willetts has identified three elements of focus for the government: securing the research base by ring-fencing cash; creating stronger links between academic researchers and business; and identifying new technologies.

These elements provide potential opportunities for intellectual property practices. The government plans to use public funding for spin-offs from academic research. Research councils have increased their investment by a fifth, in collaborative training which involves private, public or charity research partners. The focus is exploring industrial applications for technologies rather than merely funding research.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded four fellowships to scientists making the transition from industry to academia: from Qinetic and IBM to Exeter, BAS to Cranfield and Talecris Biotherapeutics to UCL. Each fellow will lead a £1m research programme with commercial aims.

David Willetts’ speech deals, at a high level, with the potential gains of commercialising advances in high technology. But what is disappointing about the government’s proposal is the lack of mention of the role of intellectual property rights in these collaborations. The financial success of these projects will stem from correct handling, from the beginning, of the intellectual property rights involved.

There is opportunity here for IP experts to provide legal and strategic intellectual property advice to academics who, as a result, of a business background and the commercially sponsored aims of the project are likely to be receptive to that advice. The angle is to meet the needs of the newly appointed scientist businessperson who will fill these key fellowship roles. In order to do this, you will need to understand the new and changing technologies involved.

David Willetts refers to the July 2010 Foresight report on Technology and innovation futures: UK growth opportunities for the 2020s. This lists 53 key technologies grouped into 28 clusters, including: ambient intelligence in the built environment, display technologies, energy scavenging, hydrogen economy, synthetic biology, robotics, the cheap genome, water and photonics. Suddenly, law firms who list their sectors as, for example, manufacturing or TMT (technology, media, telecommunications) look positively out dated and clumsy.

Of the 28 clusters, several broader areas are identified as sweeping up a number of clusters: manufacturing on demand, smart infrastructure, the second Internet revolution, the energy transition, new material for a low carbon future, and regenerative medicine.

That’s the exciting new technologies highlighted, but so what? The bottom line is that the government believes that  the UK’s strength as an international centre of IP law practice is underexploited. Law firms need to rethink alliances, their expertise and how they define and promote their chosen sector.

The government is:

The government says it is likely to fund research into understanding the UK’s IP strengths and weaknesses with regard to global competitors and then it will use this information to inform sector and technology-specific strategies aimed at playing to its strengths and  plugging the gaps.

A refreshed Foresight report is due out this summer from the Government Office for Science. Watch this space for an update.