Innovation doesn’t always proceed smoothly. There are bursts and pauses; periods of rapid change followed by times of consolidation. In this article, part of our series on the impact of COVID-19, we look at business trends and how they will affect IP rights.
Periods of disruption often accelerate change. The worlds wars in the twentieth century, for example, led to advances in the internal combustion engine and the jet engine, nuclear power and antibiotics, among other technologies. Kilburn & Strode Chair Gwilym Roberts has co-written a series of articles looking at how the crises in the 20th century affected patenting, and what lessons they can teach us about the current pandemic. “It’s clear that crises tend to act as innovation accelerators, with the development of technologies that already existed but hadn’t yet found a home. This is often accompanied by greater collaboration, including through patent licensing, and public-private research partnerships,” he says.
Public-private cooperation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is already evident in the development and manufacture of vaccines, with the US government’s Operation Warp Speed and the successful collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca. The success of these projects may provide a template for future collaboration in other areas, and The Economist magazine recently made the case for even more state spending on R&D.
The pandemic has also redirected some research to new areas. For example, says Kilburn & Strode partner Marco Morbidini: “Many engineers helped to fight COVID-19 by adapting and reinventing research to deliver ventilators and personal protection equipment.”
Brave new worlds
What other technologies are ripe for a post-pandemic boom? Marco suggests that two with great potential are graphene and 3D printing: “There was a lot of excitement about both of these areas a few years ago, and they haven’t really delivered on their potential yet. But we are now seeing more new applications emerging, for example 3D printing for household appliances.”
Another area where he predicts a boom is cleantech: “Oil and gas companies are investing in young companies with good technologies; there is lots of government support; and much of this is driven by technology transfer.” Associate Rosie Carrie, who is based in the Netherlands, agrees: “We are seeing a real acceleration around green initiatives now, in everything from futuristic greenhouses for food production to more efficient pipes for water distribution.”
With petrol and diesel vehicles being phased out in many countries over the next decade, and new charging points and stations being rolled out, the pace of green research is set to pick up even further. And even here the impact of the pandemic could be felt, as Rosie says: “Thanks to lockdowns, long journeys have been ruled out and that makes electric vehicles more attractive for people. It’s accidental green tech!”
New trends, new questions
All these trends paint a positive picture for patents, with more applications across a wide range of technical fields, and more licensing too. But changes in business also bring questions. One that Marco highlights is that engineering is increasingly software-related rather than experimental: “This opens up opportunities for cross-technology patenting.” In the green tech area, meanwhile, there may be debates about access to technologies, particularly platform technologies, and questions about whether (and how) they should be widely licensed. “We’ve seen the patent system used as vehicle for collaboration in many fields,” comments Gwilym. “We need to build on those lessons.”
Finally, if the history of innovation has taught us anything, it is that IP disputes are often brewing below the surface. As partner Nick Bassil says: “There has been great cooperation between governments, companies and universities in the development of vaccines for COVID-19 – but don’t rule out contentious issues in the future!”
Contact Gwilym if you would like to have a word him about his writing, IP or the Welsh countryside.