Eleanor Maciver, partner, patent attorney and sustainability champion at IP firm Mewburn Ellis, explains how intellectual property helps sustainable innovation businesses to thrive, paving the way for a greener future.
- Intellectual property comes in a variety of forms designed to protect different intellectual creations.
- Robust IP protection can play an important role in fostering sustainable innovation and attracting investment in these important technologies for a number of (interrelated) reasons.
- Innovators in green technologies should consider IP protection early and develop comprehensive strategies to maximise the impact of their inventions.
In the face of mounting environmental challenges, governments, businesses, and individuals are working towards more sustainable ways of living.
Essential to this global transition is the development of green technologies, such as innovative products or recycling methods, enabling Earth’s resources to be used sustainably. It is widely acknowledged that technologies such as carbon capture and storage are required in the mid-term to avoid the worst effects of climate change whilst working to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
This article explores the role of Intellectual Property (IP) in sustainable innovation, its importance for businesses, and discusses what innovators in the green technology sector need to know.
Why is intellectual property important for sustainable innovation and businesses?
IP comes in a variety of forms designed to protect different intellectual creations: patents protect how something works; designs protect how something looks; trademarks indicate the origin of something; and copyright protects creative works.
Robust IP protection can play an important role in fostering sustainable innovation and attracting investment in these important technologies for a number of (interrelated) reasons.
IP can be crucial for attracting investment in green technologies. IP rights allow their owners to stop others from using their ideas without their permission. They can be used to reward innovators by allowing them to block competitors from offering the same or similar competing technology, and safely grow credibility around their brand. Investors want as much security as possible that they will see a return on their investment and IP is a key part of providing this security, particularly for technology-based businesses.
IP rights can facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology between organisations. By sharing their innovations, companies can enable wider adoption of sustainable practices and accelerate the development and deployment of green technologies. A good example is the collaboration between a ‘big’ established businesses (e.g. a plastic manufacturer) and a ‘small’ new technology business (e.g. a new more sustainable plastics technology). The ‘big’ business has the know-how and expertise to scale up and exploit the new technology developed by the smaller company. IP rights facilitate their partnership by protecting what each company has developed, allowing them to share their technology without losing control of their property.
IP can be a source of revenue for corporations such as through licensing, generating additional income streams that can be reinvested in research and development efforts.
In a circular way, IP rights incentivise companies to invest in research and development; new technologies as we’ve seen can provide a competitive edge. This leads to the creation of new and improved green technologies.
IP also plays a key role in promoting the sustainability of a product helping to establish and grow its market. Although patents cannot verify the green credentials of a product they do provide detailed information about how the technology works for consumers and others to consider, as they can allow a company to promote itself as the only provider of a particular technology.
There has also been an interesting rise in the use of trademarks to support green credentials and promote trust in sustainability claims. This is happening in a number of ways such as: a company with a proven track record on sustainability ‘lends’ this credibility to another company by allowing them to use the brand; and the emergence of third-party ‘sustainability assessment’ based brands such as B-Corp.
What innovators of green technologies need to know
Innovators in green technologies should consider IP protection early and develop comprehensive strategies to maximise the impact of their inventions. The timely consideration of IP can be key when seeking funding.
Our advice: develop a comprehensive IP strategy considering the whole spectrum of IP rights to provide multi-faceted protection.
Each business’s IP strategy will be different, because an IP strategy should align with the individual business plan. If the purpose (to the business) of IP is not considered, it can become bogged down in pursuing low-relevance IP which can be costly and time-consuming with limited reward. A well-thought-out IP strategy will help avoid this and provide real value to the business by protecting what needs to be protected in order to pursue the business plan.
For UK companies, an IP Audit is a good first step in producing an IP strategy both for new businesses and for existing businesses looking to implement new projects. Government help is available to help innovative businesses in the UK pay for an IP audit.
An IP Audit should look at the benefits of IP to the business and consider what IP should be pursued rather than simply what IP is available. If you conduct an audit, work closely with your attorney so they understand your business plans and aims to ensure these are fully captured in the audit and any advice.
Part of an IP strategy should consider existing IP rights and potential competitors. Analysing prior art and conducting freedom-to-operate searches can help businesses fully understand the marketplace and plan for the future. For example, a freedom‑to‑operate search might reveal a patent with the potential to block the business’s existing plans. Early knowledge of this can also allow the business to plan either a ‘workaround’ or a (cross)‑licensing strategy.
IP’s role in the transition
The transition to a sustainable and net zero future requires rapid development and adoption of green technologies on a global scale. IP plays a crucial role in driving sustainable innovation.
It is clear that there are real opportunities for businesses working in this space both to succeed commercially and succeed for the planet. With a robust IP framework in place, sustainable innovation businesses can thrive, paving the way for a greener future.
The opinions of guest authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of SG Voice.