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blog article22 June 2023

How small businesses can master intellectual property in 5 steps

Intellectual property
Intellectual property

Intellectual property is a powerful tool that can help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) thrive in a fierce business world. Small businesses drive innovation, job creation, and economic growth. Yet, many of these ventures face a common hurdle: the lack of resources and know-how to protect their valuable intangible assets. Join us for a conversation with Christina Deyl, Internationalisation adviser for Enterprise Europe Network Hessen, as she shares her insights on how to make the most of your intellectual property.


What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) covers a vast range of human creations, from inventions and art to symbols and designs used in business. IP rights protect these creations and give authors exclusive control over their use and commercial exploitation. They also empower small businesses to defend against unauthorised copying or use by competitors. Moreover, they encourage innovation, creativity, and investment in knowledge-based industries.

There are two main categories of IP rights: registered or unregistered. Registered IP, like patents or trademarks, undergo a formal process and provide specific legal protections. For example, patents give inventors exclusive rights to profit from their inventions and prevent unauthorised use.

Trademarks distinguish the origin of goods or services, while design rights protect a product’s visual appearance. Registered IP provides several advantages for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It shields their creations, establishing a unique brand identity and creating barriers to entry for competitors. Additionally, SMEs can license or sell their IP rights, which opens opportunities for new income streams and partnerships.

On the other hand, unregistered IP rights offer legal protection without formal registration. Trade secrets, such as confidential information, give companies a competitive edge. Copyright also falls under unregistered IP, covering various creative works. Unregistered IP helps SMEs maintain their unique selling propositions and operational efficiencies. However, defending unregistered IP carries some risks. Ultimately, it’s important for small businesses to carefully consider their IP strategies and choose the approach that aligns with their needs.

Why IP management matters for small businesses

IP is crucial for the small companies’ success. It protects innovative products and services, giving businesses a competitive advantage and boosting their brand value. IP rights not only prevent copying but also attract investors and potential buyers. They also ensure legal protection against infringement, therefore enabling SMEs to enter new markets with confidence.

For these reasons, developing a robust IP strategy is essential. Small businesses can maximise the value of their intellectual assets by following these 5 steps:

  1. Identify and prioritise your IP assets: Take inventory of your patents, trademarks, designs, copyrights, trade secrets, etc. Rank these assets based on their importance to your business’s success.
  2. Conduct an IP audit: Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your IP portfolio through a thorough evaluation. Identify areas where your IP might be vulnerable and evaluate the risks associated with different types of IP protection.
  3. Create an IP protection plan: Based on the audit results, develop a plan that outlines strategies for protecting your patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. Include measures to monitor and enforce your IP rights to detect and prevent any infringement. And don’t forget to check if your own products are not infringing any third-party IP, e.g., by running a freedom-to-operate analysis.
  4. Put your plan into action: Implement your IP protection plan and ensure that your employees are aware of your company’s policies and procedures. Training staff on the importance of IP protection and the best ways to identify potential violations is essential.
  5. Review and update the plan: Keep your IP protection plan relevant by regularly reviewing and updating it. This way, you’ll ensure that your IP strategy is aligned with the evolving needs of your business.

Real-life practice: How IP can make or break a company’s success

AlgaEnergy, a Spanish biotech company specialising in microalgae, faced major hurdles in protecting their IP for new services and products. To tackle this challenge, they adopted a comprehensive IP management strategy. While securing licenses and patents for several processes in their value chain, they made a strategic decision not to patent their know-how. Instead, they took various measures to safeguard their expertise, such as asking employees to sign confidentiality agreements and setting up exclusive relationships with customers, partners, and technology providers. AlgaEnergy also secured trademark registrations to protect their brand value and prevent counterfeiting.

As this case study shows, planning and protecting your IP early on during product development is crucial. A solid IP management strategy should use all available IP assets and tools across the value chain.

Engaging experienced professionals and expert advisory services can help small businesses craft an effective protection plan for their innovative offerings. However, the most vital aspect of protecting IP is building strong relationships with employees, customers, providers, partners, and shareholders.

In another inspiring case, material scientists Richard Palmer and Philip Green were developing flexible materials for protective wear. However, just as they were ready to submit their patent application, they discovered that their invention had already been patented in Japan. Rather than giving up, they used this setback to develop a new and even better solution. This innovation became the foundation for their successful company, D3O, which now offers innovative protective equipment for athletes, industrial workers, and soldiers. This case shows that thorough research and studying existing patents with a freedom-to-operate analysis are vital in avoiding wasted resources and finding alternative approaches to problem-solving. These are just two of the many examples that illustrate how entrepreneurs have learned valuable lessons about protecting and using their IP. While all situations are different, these cases reveal the importance of strategic planning when it comes to managing your IP.

How Enterprise Europe Network and the European IP Helpdesk can support your business

The Enterprise Europe Network advisers offer a wide range of IP advice and training to help small businesses. They cover everything from the basics to more complex audits and assessments. These services help SMEs identify their IP assets, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and develop effective strategies. If SMEs are looking for technology transfer partners, licensing opportunities, or joint ventures, the Network can assist in commercialising their IP assets through its internationalisation and partnering services.

The Network helps companies plan and manage their innovation activities, aligning their strategies with other business processes. Network advisers can also provide information on funding opportunities for SMEs to protect and commercialise their IP assets. For example, the European Union Intellectual Property Office runs the SME Fund, which aids small businesses to develop their trademark, design portfolios, and patents. There’s also the Horizon IP Scan, a free service by the European Commission that helps start-ups and SMEs in EU-funded joint research projects manage their IP effectively. The European IP Helpdesk, along with the International IP Helpdesks in China, Latin-America, South-East Asia, India, and Africa, are other initiatives by the EU assisting SMEs with IP matters. They help with every aspect of building IP skills and knowledge, from raising awareness about IP to strategically using and benefitting from it. The helpdesks offer free webinars, events, a helpline, and IP publications like guides and factsheets.

The Enterprise Europe Network and the European IP Helpdesk work closely together to offer several support services to small companies across Europe. One important program is the Ambassadors Scheme, which helps SMEs understand the importance of IP protection. A team of ‘ambassadors’ – currently including 41 experts in IP and innovation from 26 countries – guide and train small businesses on all things regarding IP. Essentially, the ambassadors, who are also EEN advisers, bridge the gap between the Network and the European IP Helpdesk, ensuring that SMEs have access to a wide range of services. Additionally, they connect small businesses with the local Network contact points and link EU policies with the needs of SMEs on the ground.

Protecting your IP is vital for the success of your business. It grants you a competitive edge, opens new revenue streams, unlocks export opportunities, attracts investments, and provides legal protection. Navigating the complexities of IP is not always easy, but we’re here to guide you every step of the way.

About the author(s)

Christina Deyl is an Internationalisation adviser for Enterprise Europe Network Hessen within Hessen Trade & Invest GmbH in Wiesbaden, Germany. Over the past 15 years, Christina has helped SMEs, start-ups, and research institutions grow globally and consolidate their competitive position on the market.

This article was co-written by Ruxandra-Laura Bosilca, PhD, Social Media Manager at EISMEA.

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