Turning ideas to profit

Tom Shelley reports on the challenges of turning ideas into profit and finding the best match between those who have ideas and those who need them.

British engineers excel at having ideas, but in the past have not always been so hot at turning them into profit.

There is growing awareness within universities, Government laboratories, small businesses and large companies that intellectual property is its most valuable asset. But the problem remains, how to match a technology innovation with the people who can use them, and to protect against unscrupulous pirateers.

Help from Europe, while theoretically abundant, is extremely hard to access. Christos Tokamanis, head of the Nano and Converging Sciences and Technologies unit of the European Commission explains that while there are €3billion to spend on nanotechnology, "the problem is the length and complexity of the bureaucracy that we have to follow.

"We expect member states to have a lot of SME programs. We talk to the regions – often they do not want money – they want partnerships," implying that an approach to his office is unlikely to get you very far.

But director of the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), Dr Alec Reader, says: "For British companies either with or looking for ideas, the best way to go forward is via the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).
"KTNs are funded by the TSB. We bring organisations together to promote knowledge exchange."

As an example of a success story Reader cites Nanosight. "They came to us with wonderful technology and we were able to put them in touch with a number of other companies that were interested in using the technology. As a result, they have now sold more than 200 systems."

There are numerous aspects essential to growing IP into marketable products. First somebody has to have a certain hunger. Getting a new idea to market is far from easy. Secondly, there has to be networking to find partners, investors and potential customers, not necessarily through government agencies. There are many varying paths to follow, and of course, it needs a lot of hard work, commitment and enthusiasm to turn ideas in to profit.

There are 19 active KTNs around the UK that specialise in various markets and technology sectors such as aerospace and defence, materials, energy generation and supply, environmental sustainability, low carbon, and sensors and instrumentation. Each KTN has memberships numbering in the hundreds to thousands, so they are a way of keeping in touch with an awful lot of people.

The idea behind the KTNs is to link those that have the IP with those that have a market or need for it. And this is about bolster the UK's position as a high technology economy that is about adding value to processes and products by using innovation.

As they are all completely free to join, Dr Reader advises companies to seek out KTNs that are suitable and keep an eye out for funding calls looking for technologies to solve particular problems. Although using them online is a good way to start, to get make most use out of them, he suggests attending their partnering events, taking part in or giving pitches, and contacting them to set up a one to one meeting.

The other set of Government funded institutions that are worth visiting are Business Links and Local Authority Enterprise Boards. Their usefulness can be a bit variable, but where they are good, they can be very, very good. They assist both large and small companies often bridging the gaps between them as well as helping to build up networks of key people and companies, and can even help with funding.

Like anything run by government, the downside is that these tend to be a bit slow and cumbersome. However, things can move very fast indeed when there is a sudden demand, such as the immediate need to find better methods of protecting our troops in Afghanistan.

But even this requires calls, submission of proposals, evaluation, and lots of paperwork. So, if your business has a real, immediate need for innovation to solve some problem, a better place to source information can be the former Government run laboratories that have been privatised.

A telephone call to Pera: The Innovation Network – formerly the Production Engineering Research Association - always seems to produce an answer, and if they don't know how to do something, they always seemed to know somebody who might. If it involves joining something there is TWI, formerly The Welding Institute. And if it involved measuring anything, you can do no better than NPL, formerly the National Physical Laboratory. Additionally RAPRA – formerly the Rubber And Plastics Research Association – can always advise on virtually anything in its subject area.

Pera cites a gateway through the link at the end of the article to the almost impenetrable European Commission Community Research and Development Information Service, CORDIS. While we don't particularly recommend going through the agony, there is a link there called, 'find a project' and 'find project partners'. If there is anybody in Europe working on a problem that needs solving, it's in there.
While systems exist to facilitate working with UK companies and agencies, working with companies in the Far East in order to produce product at competitive prices can be something of a challenge. The problem is not finding companies willing to manufacture products at competitive prices but finding ones that can be trusted to both deliver goods of suitable quality and that can be trusted with the finer details of a products intellectual property and patents.

Charles Dawes, the proprietor of the Creative Ventures Consortium, has been helping designers of innovative products get them to market at competitive prices for several decades.

He says: "When dealing with Chinese companies, I work through British agents. Many Chinese businesses want repeat business so once you have found suitable partners, you should start small, and slowly build up to larger orders."
One of Dawes' agents is David Ardener, proprietor of Ardener Innovations who says: "I have been working with Chinese companies for 20 years in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

"You need to do a bit of homework first and understand the people. The written word means little; anyone can break a contract here. It's all a matter of trust and making things work in a two way relationship. However, if going there for the first time, it's not good to go there on your own without introductions from people you trust."
Dave Wolf, a consultant for Plextek, a Cambridge based electronic design house that specialises in wireless solutions, agreed. He says: "It's mainly for the volume market that we have things made in the Far East.

"However, before agreeing contracts, you have to go on site, visit the premises and talk to the people you are going to work with face to face, and have a look at the factories current and previous work to inspect the quality. Personally we have never been ripped off, but we have had some issues with plastic materials not being up to specification. We do run sample checks and we have permanent UK staff out there to ensure that things run smoothly."

In this situation, it is vital to establish personal relationships that should be sustained over a long period. "Over time, you gain confidence in each other," he adds. "Relationships are built on trust and business sense. The longer the time, the more established the relationship becomes. You build a relationship through combined success."

However, one area where certain Chinese interests are something of a menace is information gathering over the Internet. The major CAD companies are well aware of the need for their customers to protect their intellectual property and using old versions, in order to save money, is not a good idea. Dassault Systèmes, for example, found vulnerability in Catia V5 in versions prior to its R18 service pack 8 in February. And Autodesk found one in AutoCAD 2004 to 2009 products. PTC found vulnerability in many versions of Windchill in June. So not taking out a subscription to get the latest updates to a CAD or PLM software system, is like leaving the design office door unlocked.

Hopefully there will not be so many future instances that follow the invention of the microwave oven by James Lovelock that brought huge revenues to Far Eastern companies or the work by TWI on friction stir welding that allowed Hitachi to get the South Eastern high speed trains contract.

On the contrary. It is good news. Intellectual property conceived in the UK is being increasingly used by UK companies to provide a competitive edge. And Government recognises the need to facilitate this and has responded with numerous initiatives to make it easy, quicker and more effective for those with the ideas to find those who need them. And this is exactly the stance the UK needs to take if engineering and innovation are to add long prosperity to the economy.

Tom Shelley

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