Patents – Not Just The Playground of Big Pharma and Big Tech


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Patents aren’t just for the ‘big boys’

Contrary to popular belief, patents should be a priority for prelaunch startups.

There are a huge number of patents covering almost every product you can buy, so patents are clearly obtainable providing you get the right advice and have an innovative product to patent.

Here are some examples of patents in three different technical domains.


Photo Credit: Justin Case


The discovery of superconductivity dates back to 1911, when it was first observed by a Dutch physicist.  In 1986, a breakthrough discovery was made by Alexander Müller and Georg Bednorz at an IBM laboratory in Switzerland. They created a ceramic compound that superconducted at the highest temperature then known: 30 K (-243°C). What made this discovery so remarkable was that ceramics are normally insulators.

A year later in 1987 Müller and Bednorz received the Nobel Prize in Physics. A number of patent applications resulted from their research activities. Their discovery opened up the possibility of real applications for superconductors and as a result there was a huge increase in patent applications in the field and a phase of high inventive activity. However, even today superconductors are still not a mass-market product and most of these patents did not turn out to be valuable at all. It is no wonder, therefore, that research interest has decreased and the number of patent applications for superconductors has fallen almost to the level it was at before the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity.


Photo Credit: Tiffany Nutt


Many patent applications relate to simple inventions that concern things we use every day. You might think that bicycle technology is quite old and that there won’t be many bicycle patents today, but the opposite is true. In fact, during the last decade more patents have been applied for inventions relating to bicycle technology than for superconductor technology!

Incidentally, more than 130 million bicycles are produced every year worldwide, including 25 million electric bikes, so no wonder there are a large number of companies in fierce competition in this market. By way of comparison, the number of cars manufactured per year is around 50 million.


Photo Credit: Henrik Lagercrantz


Even seemingly trivial things such as the opening of a tetra pack, a razor blade or a toothbrush may be covered by patents. In 2012, more than 2 000 patent documents relating to toothbrushes were published. Colgate’s largest production site (Colgate Sanxiao in China), for example, makes 1 500 million toothbrushes a year, which is around one tenth of the total global toothbrush production.

Despite the large number of patents, no company has a monopoly on bicycles or toothbrushes – or even on superconductors. Instead, many companies have small proprietary technologies that make their bicycles, toothbrushes or superconductors a little bit better than those of the competition and thus help them to stay competitive.


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As James Dyson said,

“If you didn’t have patents, no one would bother to spend money on research and development. But with patents, if someone has a good idea and a competitor can’t copy it, then that competitor will have to think of their own way of doing it. So then, instead of just one innovator, you have two or three people trying to do something in a new way.”

So don’t discount patent protection when developing your product, I think the key question to ask yourself is:



 Photo Credit: ThisisEngineering RAEng
If you can answer this question even with a conditional ‘yes’ then patent protection may just be for you.

Where to go from here

At the end of the day, don’t get intimidated by patents whether you are considering applying for one or working around one so that you can launch you product without fear of being sued (freedom to operate). Focus on developing your product first and foremost and seek patent guidance as early as you possibly can (ideally at the product idea stage).

If you want more insights as to how to use a knowledge of patents and other intellectual property rights (such as trade marks and copyright) to your advantage then check out my other blog posts; there is no reason why you can’t take on the big boys in your industry with the appropriate IP protection!


Photo Credit: James Pond
Case Studies Credit: EPO
Disclaimer: Changes have been made to the original material from the EPO, the resulting modified version has not been authorised by the EPO, and the EPO shall not be responsible for the correctness of any such modifications.

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