Paul Chapman, Partner, Marks & Clerk: Is Invention Enough?

Paul Chapman, Patent Attorney and Partner at Marks & Clerk, argues that innovation and commercialisation should go hand-in-hand.  

2016 has been a strong year for innovation in Scotland and in particular in the Life Science field. Moreover, 2016 has certainly been interesting in terms of political considerations both here and abroad, which will provide both challenges and opportunities in the coming years.  In order to address any challenges and embrace any opportunities, Scottish companies and researchers must continue to be innovative in their approach to development.

Scotland has long had a reputation of being a nation of significant Life Science inventors and researchers. From Alexander Fleming to James Black to Ian Wilmut, the list goes on. In 2016, we continued to turn out invention after invention. But is invention enough? What about innovation? And what is the difference between the two?

In an interesting online article by Nick Skillicorn, 15 so-called innovation experts were asked what their definition of innovation was. Perhaps not surprisingly, a great variety of answers were provided, which Nick distilled down to his ultimate definition:

“Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and the customer”.

However, not only is innovation difficult to define, but it can be difficult to achieve. To my mind the first three words are perhaps the most important: “Executing an idea…”. It is necessary to have an idea, but if you do not execute it, then arguably you have failed to make the most of your idea – to innovate.

As a patent attorney, I come across inventions every working day, but if there is no commercial exploitation of an invention, then it is far less valuable. Inventors should not simply think about inventing, but also about exploiting, which is something we routinely discuss with our clients.

You may have heard the phrase “That is about as useful as a chocolate teapot” to make the point that someone could invent or develop something that is interesting but ultimately useless in the real world. This phrase serves to highlight the importance of innovation and not simply invention. Admittedly, it is now possible to buy a chocolate teapot, as a joke, which just goes to show that with a bit of ingenuity, you can commercialise some surprising things!

Thus, for Scottish inventors, we wish to emphasise that it is not sufficient to focus exclusively on invention without considering how to exploit an invention. Of course some inventions are simply conceived at the wrong time and I have seen many inventions which are exploited many years after they are originally conceived. Timing, as they say, is everything!

Patent attorneys work with clients not simply to protect their inventions, but also where appropriate to consider carefully a suitable exploitation strategy. What is more, not everything is patentable, but that does not mean we cannot consider other aspects of IP which may be appropriate and work to successfully commercialise products and methods.

The importance of innovation cannot be overstressed enough. We are delighted to be able to sponsor this year’s Scottish Life Sciences Innovation award. Three highly innovative companies have been shortlisted for the award and we look forward to hearing on the night who this year’s winner is. However, for those companies who do not win, or were not shortlisted, we wish to share with you the importance of applying inventions to real-world use and to help keep Scotland and its residents the world’s best innovators.