In the fast-changing world of food and agribusiness, maximizing the value of intellectual property (IP) is about more than just problem-solving.
With scientific discovery advancing at an unbelievable pace in the field, agtech companies are regularly seeking strategic legal advice to protect their inventions. An overarching IP strategy will contribute to increasing revenue growth while protecting market share over the long term. This approach is equally important for the large seed company developing new insecticide proteins and the agtech start-up using satellite technology to boost crop yields.
Read on to find out how you can build a sound IP strategy of your own.
1. Think About IP
The first step toward building a successful IP strategy is to start thinking critically about the issue.
This may sound intuitive, but all too often, companies do not engage enough with their IP strategy until they are forced to respond reflexively to events, such as a lawsuit for IP infringement. Even those who have invested in an expensive patent portfolio have often done so instinctively, without giving much thought to their reasons.
Depending on the unique profile of the company — taking into consideration factors such as its stage of development, relationship with suppliers and the competitiveness of the market in which it operates — it may be appropriate to invest minimally in IP. For others, however, an assessment of the same factors may point in a different direction. Despite the significant costs associated, start-ups with an eye on an eventual sale often opt to maintain a patent portfolio to send a signal to investors about their position in the market and possible exclusivity.
2. Build a Culture of IP Protection
Employees do not need any invitation to invent, but they may need a prod to disclose their creations to their employers. Invention is happening all the time within every company, and particularly so at agtech businesses, where workforces are populated disproportionately by engineers and scientists whose minds are teeming with ideas.
However, in the wrong environment, these concepts may never see the light of day, let alone achieve their full potential. Those companies that are most successful at exploiting their IP have created a company-wide culture that incentivizes the disclosure of inventions by employees who understand the value of their contributions. Senior management has a key role to play here, setting the tone by championing IP protection and offering the necessary financial and organizational support.
3. Identify Your IP
Once your employees are primed to disclose their ideas, they may need help recognizing a new piece of intellectual property.
Every advancement appears incremental or obvious to the research scientist who has been deep in the weeds of herbicidal compounds or plant proteins for years on end, and it can be hard to get them to recognize that they have come up with something innovative.
Agtech companies can inject a bit of perspective into the process by developing a mechanism for advancements to be documented and then reviewed by an external party who can make a more objective assessment of whether the invention is worthy or capable of IP protection.
Case Study: IP Strategy in Action
We recently had an opportunity to put our IP strategy-development process into practice when an agtech client approached us for advice on whether it should be filing patent applications.
After our team performed an assessment of IP activity involving the company’s suppliers and competitors, our client was surprised to learn that its main supplier had already begun filing patent applications on the very technology they were helping develop.
Discussions followed with the supplier about providing our client with IP ownership for any development they had paid for, and our client is now assessing its supplier agreements to ensure all IP belongs to it. The business has also launched an internal program to encourage employees to identify invention candidates for patent protection.
4. Get Monitoring
The final element of a sound IP strategy is a comprehensive program of ongoing external and internal monitoring. It is not enough for agtech companies to know what is going on within their four walls. Keeping an eye on the IP filings of your competitors will give you an idea of both their potential future directions and the market’s.
However, it is not just domestic competitors that Canadians need to watch. The overwhelming majority of patents filed in Canada are foreign-owned, while the increasing homogenization of IP registration rules around the world is not slowing this trend. Canadian innovators’ homefield advantage has been slowly eroding for years as our traditionally more forgiving IP laws have tightened, and upcoming changes are set to impose charges for the first time on additional patent claims over 20, matching rules in the U.S. and European patent offices.
Still, some legal differences persist across international boundaries. For example, in the case of a mouse genetically modified to assist cancer research, the Supreme Court of Canada bucked international trends to hold that “higher life-forms” are not patentable in this country. Agtech companies must be live to local conditions in jurisdictions where they intend to operate and adapt their strategy accordingly when circumstances change.