The Eindhoven region has recorded the most patents in the world. e52 speaks to the man who advises companies in Eindhoven and the surrounding area on their applications through the Octrooicentrum Nederland (Dutch Patent Centre). Hans Helsloot is also a mentor at Startupbootcamp HighTechXL. He oversees the selection process and helps start-ups on the programme with their intellectual property strategy.
Today, Part 1: 4 Tips for those walking around with a great idea
(Next week, Part 2: Where do all of the patent applications in Eindhoven actually come from?)
But first thing’s first: an “octrooi” is the official Dutch word for a patent. The Germans use the English word, while the French talk about a “brevet”. Helsloot works for the Octrooicentrum Nederland, part of the Rijksdienst van Ondernemend Nederland (Netherlands Enterprise Agency), which falls under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. He advises companies on their applications and can help entrepreneurs with feasibility studies for free. While you can write the application yourself, it’s usually better to turn to a patent lawyer.
1. Every innovation starts on Espacenet
Let’s dive in with the most important tip: every company working on innovation should regularly check the Espacenet database. Here you’ll find the publications of patents that have already been filed around the world. It’s a common mistake: companies spend months on their invention, but neglect to research what has already been done. As a result, Helsloot spends a lot of time telling entrepreneurs that their idea isn’t exactly new and has become “an expert in giving bad news”. He organises free workshops for those who wish to learn how to search the database (check www.rvo.nl for more information).
2. Plan a good strategy for your intellectual property
Consider when you will file the patent, what it is exactly that you want to file and where you will file it (only in the Netherlands or worldwide).
As for timing, Helsloot advises against filing too early. If you find a way to improve your invention two weeks later, you won’t be able to add an amendment. Think long and hard about when your product will be ready for the application. Until that time, you would be wise to deal with the information you give to your interlocutors. You don’t want to give up your secret too soon, of course. And you shouldn’t. An invention can only be patented if it is not yet public. Blogging about any exciting developments you’re working on or attending a trade show is therefore a no-go. Until you’ve finalised everything, you can only reveal to interested parties what you can do, not how you can do it.
Helsloot suggests considering your strategy within the whole mix of intellectual property options. As well as a patent, it’s a good idea to look into issues such as copyright, design right (to protect the new appearance of a product) and trademark law. The latter should be distinctive and non-descriptive. You can’t call a fruit an “Apple”, but you can call a computer that.
You can’t call a fruit “Apple”, but you can call a computer that.
Think wisely about which markets you want to operate in, or where your competitors are operating, and in which country it would be most useful to have your patent filed. All patents have been granted in the Netherlands since the end of the last century. Anyone can record their own idea, even if they claim to have invented the wheel. Not everyone does this because it always costs money to file a patent and little comes of anything that isn’t new. You pay 200 Euros in taxes when you file an application in the Netherlands. If you go to the European Patent Office, you pay 3000 Euros in tax. The EPO tests the innovation, inventiveness and industrial applicability, and any patent that is subsequently granted must still be validated in each individual member state as required. This incurs additional costs for the necessary translations of the texts. For this reason, Helsloot is looking forward to a unitary patent that will hopefully come into effect next year. Of course, you can also file your patent outside of Europe.
He occasionally meets people who have written up their own patent application and sent it to the European Patent Office. Don’t do that, is his advice. It often results in the rejection of the application because the innovation hasn’t been explained clearly enough. It might cost some money (in the region of 5000 Euros), but it’s better to go to a patent lawyer who will write the application for you.
3. You can earn a lot of money with a patent: think about how you’ll go about it
Helsloot encourages companies to consider the commercial factors of a patent – that is, how they can make a lot of money with it. For instance, you can license your patent, giving parties the exclusive right to use your patent in a particular market. This could be useful in countries where you don’t operate. And you can, of course, just sell your patent.
“Another thing that plays a role for start-ups,” explains Helsloot, “is the exit strategy.” These young companies are often acquired by a larger party within a few years. Start-ups are more attractive if they’ve taken proper care of their intellectual property. By filing a patent, you’re also easier to find in the international databases. Large companies keep an eye on these and usually know which companies are working on which developments.
4. Make a choice – even if that means not filing an application
It’s important to realise that filing a patent isn’t free. Will you recoup that cost? Remember that you’ll also be responsible for maintaining it. Do you have the time and means to ensure that no one is using it without permission? Finally, consider that everything you patent is made public. Your competitors will see exactly what you’re doing. After a maximum of 20 years, or 25 in medicine, your patent will expire. They are only made public 18 months after they have been filed, which gives you some wiggle room to further develop your invention – before your competitors do. So even once you’ve recorded your patent, “You have to keep going with it.”
Read the earlier instalments in the Startupbootcamp HighTechXL series: