Polymers are abundant in daily life. The ability to tailor their properties for a raft of practices make them attractive materials for diverse applications including controlled drug delivery, biodegradable packaging, automotive materials and banknotes. To assist with your IP strategy, we outline what technical aspects you can use for patent protection.

From Nylon to Kevlar, through to the adhesive for Post-it notes, patents have allowed inventors in the materials and polymer sector to:

  • protect research, affording exclusive rights to their polymer creations
  • offer a legal framework to protect IP
  • provide a source of licensing income
  • highlight research expertise.

What technical aspects can you protect?

Various aspects of polymer-based inventions can be captured in a patent.

  • What is the distinguishing aspect of your invention?
  • Is it an advantage afforded by the choice of monomers and/or the structure?
  • A novel production method e.g. through 3D printing?
  • A new identified application for a known material?
  • A new “greener” synthetic process or material?

Or all the above?

Components and structure

In the pharmaceutical space, the most sought after patent claims are directed to active compounds. With these claims potentially any form of matter, composition, process or method that uses this key component will be protected. In a similar vein, monomers are the building blocks for generating polymers. Whilst an array of monomers is already known, there is always the chance that this fundamental building block could be protected.

Moving up the macromolecule ladder, the next consideration is the actual polymer itself. One or more advantageous technical features could be due to, for instance, a particular homopolymer, copolymer or blend:

  • possessing a particular molecular weight
  • displaying an appropriate combination of physical properties, such as tensile strength and longevity for heart valves
  • incorporating specific functionalities (e.g. along a backbone or at a terminal site) or a portion thereof being modified in a specific manner or conjugated to another species
  • being exposed to a particular stimulus (such as a temperature range or electrical current) and show an advantageous “smart” behaviour, such as shape memory
  • being synthesised into a particular macromolecular structure such as a micelle.

Beneficial characteristics can be obtained via the combination of two or more monomers, e.g. specific ratios possessing particularly useful properties, such as the biodegradable implants produced by PolyActiva. Combining monomers with different properties such as hydrophilicity/hydrophilicity, can allow the resulting materials to adopt beneficial forms in different media, e.g. biosensors and controlled fluorescence in targeted environments.1

It is not just the components of a polymer that must be considered but also the overall macromolecular architecture, shape and organisation of one or more monomers, which can affect the chemical, mechanical, electrical and/or optional properties of a material. The specific form of the polymer may be advantageous. One structure that has gained commercial traction are dendrimers.2 Given their well-defined three-dimensional structure, an ability to introduce multiple function groups, and the presence of cavities, dendrimers are beneficial for applications such as delivering vaccines or genes, acting as suitable nanocarriers for a variety of therapeutic payloads and are the subject of numerous patents.3

Applications and therapeutic uses

The actual application of a polymer (including new uses of known materials) can form the basis of a patent. For example, where a particular copolymer is shown to have antibacterial efficacy when used as a coating. In addition, the polymers can be incorporated or combined with other materials to yield composites (potentially patentable in their own right), for different applications such as in aircrafts or wind turbines, in medicine for stents or drug delivery devices, or with the focus on new energy solutions as part of innovative efficient battery materials.

For inventions involving therapy, for example a polymer-drug conjugates used in one or more medical treatments, there needs to be a reasonable expectation to justify and support all the conditions falling within the scope of one or more patent claims. Ideally as much relevant experimental information, such as in vitro in vivo and/or in silico studies, should be included in the specification. The broader the scope of therapies, the higher the threshold for proving that the scope of the claims are valid.

Synthesis methods

Innovation comes in many forms, and patents not only protect the structural features of a polymer but can also be used to capture manufacturing processes. Control over polymer structure, functional groups and low dispersity can be especially important, for example in the formation of new polymers that could replace traditional materials such as steel. For key new materials, the processes used for their manufacture provide another venue for protection and should not be overlooked.

In some circumstances, a new technique for generating or controlling the shape or chemical content of polymers can be the innovation. This has been seen in the past with the development of techniques such as the CSIRO developed RAFT technique and ATRP, which are the subject of multiple patents, but have provided researchers with powerful tools that can be used to control and tailor polymers for specific conditions, environments and uses.

Key takeaways

IP protection can be invaluable in protecting not only polymers per se, but also polymer composites and compositions, alongside their applications and preparation. To develop a well-rounded IP portfolio, you should consider whether your current research efforts can be protected to provide a tangible asset that:

  • can be a deterrent to prevent interested third parties from copying your work
  • could be used in licensing, along with business and research negotiations or
  • highlight technical expertise and attract further funding or collaboration opportunities.

If you have something that could be protected, ensure that you seek appropriate legal advice to correctly capture any research efforts.