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PANORAMA: 1998

Protecting Ideas that Have Changed the World
by Robert Nurden

THE BRITISH are commonly acknowledged to be among the best in the world when it comes to inventions. Over the past 50 years, according to Japanese research, more than 40 per cent of discoveries taken up on a worldwide basis originated in the United Kingdom. And at an important exposition of inventions in the United States recently, the UK won four of the top prizes.

Historically, the list of innovations makes impressive reading: Stephenson, Watt, Brunel, Trevithick and, more recently, Babbage with his forerunner of the computer, and right up to date, James Dyson and his bagless vacuum cleaner and Trevor Baylis with his clockwork radio.

These are just some of the more famous names but behind the scenes there are thousands more who have changed and are in the process of changing the way we lead our lives. The ideas may be as simple and as useful as the paperclip or they may be highly technical and specialised as the latest form of micro-processing is. But one thing they have in common is that they are all 'firsts' in some way.

In 1996 some 11,452 patent applications were filed in the UK with the Patent Office. But it is not that simple or easy. Today's inventors have to negotiate many hurdles before their creation becomes more than an idea (indeed, most do not get that far) and a manufacturer is rolling the invention out on the conveyor belt. And, for that matter, before the inventor takes his profits, the royalties of which work out at about three to five per cent of revenues.

Not least of these encumbrances is marketing. While the UK leads the world in thinking up practical ideas, it lags behind the rest in exploiting them. And with today's growing globalisation, the dissemination of ideas is becoming easier all the time, so secrecy is at a premium. Consequently, a number of superb inventions have not been seized upon by UK companies and have gone abroad.

It is, say some experts, a symptom of an endemic short-termism which has crept into the industrial psyche in recent years. In Japan and the US, by contrast, research and development initiatives are held in far greater regard as companies look more at the long term and are prepared to experiment.

But the picture in the UK is all set to change and the prospects for British inventions have never looked brighter as marketing catches up with brilliance of ideas.

The Intellectual Property Development Confederation (IPDC) is a non-profit-making membership organisation which, among things in support of the inventor, is attempting to rationalise the process of invention and take-up rates by industry. Since its inception in 1990, when a group of enthusiasts met once a month in a pub in Southampton, southern England, to discuss their inventions it has grown into an organisation with 700 members.

''Part of the problem for British inventors," said David Wardell, director of IPDC, "is the fragmented nature of the industry and no one knows where to go for advice. Now we are beginning to play the role of information provider.'' The law of patents (the agreement an inventor has with the state over the sharing of his/her piece of technology with the world for a period of 20 years) is one of the most complex ones. Inventors, who more often than not in the early stages are rather short of funds, have to grapple with this factor in isolation.'' The patent law touches on the issues of copyright, registered design, trade and service marks and design right, and, as Mr Wardell says, is like a minefield that is continually shifting.

The IPDC also advises on the use of patent agents, technology brokers, intellectual property solicitors, licensing and grants. It has a scheme for corporate membership so that companies seeking new ideas can lock into innovations within the IPDC field.

The Patent Information Network is another source of information and can be accessed from central libraries in metropolitan centres around the UK. Its purpose is to "improve the performance of UK business through the better use of patents information''.

The IPDC is already raising the profile of the inventor and now there have been encouraging noises from industry which, over the years, has seen world-beating inventions slip from its grasp. Not least of these is the Dyson dust bag which was rejected by a leading vacuum cleaner manufacturer. The company has since said it wished it had bought the idea.

Its inventor, James Dyson, has created the fastest-growing UK manufacturing company and his dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner has become the best-selling model in the country. But it took him years of determination (he first had the idea in 1978) of seeing his idea through to production, beating fierce competition and asserting his patent rights. The cleaner now generates sales of 100 million pounds sterling in the UK and 300 million pounds sterling worldwide.

The Government has also acted quickly to address the problem of poor take-up by manufacturing in setting up the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts which provides funds from the National Lottery for inventors to get projects off the drawing board. In addition, the IPDC is aiming to establish a National Invention Centre and an Institute of Patents and Inventions - interfaces where the whole body of knowledge, advice and services on the subject can be centralised. Lottery funding is also being sought for this.

The image of the eccentric genius inventor is a rather hackneyed one but in Trevor Baylis's case it is apt. With his long white hair and precocious moustache he fits the stereotype. But there was nothing predictable about his invention. It was the wind-up radio, a simple idea which links a clockwork motor to a generator.

Mr Baylis, himself, says that he was considered "almost deranged'' by many when he trailed the concept around manufacturers and they all rejected it. Until he got a break on the BBC television programme, Tomorrow's World, after which he was approached by the right backers. Although the idea was thought up for developing countries where batteries are expensive or in short supply, the radio is selling well in the developed world too.

For his determination and stamina, Mr Baylis has been recognised as a genius. His next project is a clockwork laptop computer and already he is being called a 'crank' for this latest idea. But, eventually, good ideas come to fruition and the stunning invention will always win through, surmounting every hurdle thrown in its way.

The Intellectual Property Development Confederation (IPDC)
72a Bedford Place, Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom, SO15 2DS
Telephone: +44 1703 570101
Fax: +44 1703 570102