Innovation and enterprise blog

Introduction

This blog is written by members of the Business & IP Centre team and some of our expert partners and discusses business, innovation and enterprise. Read more

05 May 2021

Inventor of the Month: Lucean Arthur Headen, 1879-1957

Introducing our latest blog feature: Inventor of the Month! In our first edition, our IP expert, Jeremy O'Hare explores the fascinating life of Lucean Arthur Headen.

'For someone to be both an inventor and an entrepreneur is a unique thing. To be someone who overcomes racial prejudice and become a pioneer in his field is truly exceptional.

I discovered the story of Lucean Headen while answering an enquiry for an historian and author, Dr Jill D. Snider, who has written a recent biography about this extraordinary man. Jill had used our historical collections of patents in order to track Headen’s achievements in engineering.

Lucean Headen, an African American, born in 1879 in North Carolina, was to become an important figure in manufacturing and engineering in Camberley, Surrey before and after the Second World War.

Passport Photo of Lucean Headen

How then, did Headen travel from a segregated USA to England in the early 20th Century and prosper in what was an extraordinary life journey and adventure for his time?

The answer is, invention. Quite a few of them in fact.

Headen, was born into the generation after the American Civil War where racial inequalities and prejudice were the norm. He belonged to a family of artisans, who had learned their trades while enslaved.  His father was exceptional in his own right as an entrepreneur and owner of a sawmill  and his family had acquired strong connections with other African American entrepreneurs.

The social networks his family built were what Headen needed to get ahead, and they became vital to his securing future opportunities. They included contacts through the Northern Presbyterian church, a network that would continue to be a place of social as well as spiritual support for Headen. But also a wider circle of investors, both black and white, who saw promise in Headen’s early inventions.

His first two patents, in fact related to cars as he established a car manufacturing business producing car bodies and engines. But it was the promise of overseas opportunities that saw him travel to the UK. He made his first trip toward the end of the First World War, to demonstrate to the British Admiralty an optical device referred to as the “Headen system of mirror camouflage,” used to make small patrol craft invisible to German submarines.

This of course helped to get him known in inventing circles. However, with the war soon to end he didn’t receive the opportunity to fully develop his idea, though his talent was commended.

Illustration from patent GB381588A Improvements in or relating to vaporizers for internal combustion engines
Illustration from patent GB381588A Improvements in or relating to vaporizers for internal combustion engines

After some time back in the USA, Headen returned to the UK in 1931 not with patents for the military, but for the car industry.

Again, the trip was because of an opportunity. England had a petrol problem; there wasn’t enough of it, and it was too expensive. Something that wasn’t a problem in the US at the time. So Headen had developed a converter kit that allowed petrol engines to burn heavy oils instead of petrol. This was a big advantage for England at the time because heavy oils were more plentiful and cheaper.

The invention certainly created a stir and was demonstrated at the Royal Motor Club. Off the back of its early interest, Headen formed a company in 1932, first in London, then relocated to Camberley, the place that would become his home. Having formed a partnership with another entrepreneur, George Hamilton, and later Camberley builder James Richard McLean Keil, this gave Headen the local network and connections to get his invention to market.

Headen and his company would become central in the local business community, and he emerged as a leading industrialist for his time in the region.

More patents were soon to follow, each developing his automotive innovations, but it was the onset of war that proved to be of such importance for Headen’s contribution to the war effort.

His engines were instrumental in British agriculture and logistics because tractors and lorry operators were able to switch to oil, therefore allowing scarce petrol for military use. His engine gasket also increased the efficiency of oil-burning engines and reduced the maintenance required.

It was clear that Headen had grown to love England and indeed had remarried here and adopted a son. He never gave up his US citizenship but was very much considered a local, and even served in the Home Guard. It’s true to say that he had created opportunities as an African American here in the UK that were so much more difficult for him in the US at the time.

But it would be wrong to see Lucean Headen as either American or British. He was bigger than that, a man who would never allow his race, background or lack of higher education hold him back, Headen succeeded with talent, determination and an instinct to chase an opportunity wherever it led him.

Illustration from patent CA376999A ‘Ice formation preventing apparatus for aircrafts
Illustration from patent CA376999A ‘Ice formation preventing apparatus for aircrafts

To use a cliché, the ‘sky’s the limit’, would even be a little limiting, as Headen was also a pioneer aviator, among the first African-Americans to fly. He added to his automotive achievements with aeronautical inventions. One of these, an anti-icing technique for planes, has been cited as an early patent for later developments by Curtiss Wright, GM Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and Rolls Royce right up to a recent thermal patent method to de-ice turbine blades in 2018.

His inventive and personal legacy continues to inspire to today. Lucean Headen is a man whose time for recognition has come.'

26 April 2021

IP and SMEs: taking your ideas to market

Guy Robinson, Divisional Director for Innovation at The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) reflects on the support available to SMEs to help them – and ultimately the UK - build back better after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today marks the celebration of World Intellectual Property day. This year’s theme is intellectual property (IP) and how small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) take their ideas to market. 

IPDay2021

We are now emerging from the global Covid-19 pandemic with caution, but throughout, companies of all sizes have been focused on adapting for survival. As those firms begin to look towards recovery, it is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the important role IP plays in setting solid foundations for future growth within SMEs.

SMEs account for 99% of all UK businesses and they contribute 21% of turnover in the UK, so they are vital to the UK and the global economy.

The UK has always been a nation of innovation and entrepreneurialism, with investment in IP rights and intangible assets reaching almost £64 billion in 2016. Those businesses that rely on IP have accounted for over a quarter of UK employment and almost half of GDP.

All firms own or use some form of intellectual property. Within that I include intellectual property rights such as patents and trade marks and intangible assets such as trade secrets and knowhow. World IP Day 2021 seeks to cast a light on how SMEs can use their IP assets to build stronger, more competitive and resilient businesses in order to generate growth.

For a business to benefit from the IP they own they will first need to identify or recognise the IP assets they hold. To emphasise my earlier point, your IP might not only be formal intellectual property rights (IPR) but some other intellectual asset that forms a vital part of your business; you might consider an IP audit to reveal what IP you hold.

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Once identified, a business will need to weigh up how best to protect the intellectual assets that have been identified. This might mean putting in place formal IPR’s providing they ‘qualify’ or it might mean ensuring the confidentiality of the information held by the business. The form of protection will depend on the nature of the IP.

This step will lead to exploitation of the IP to make money from it. Perhaps the biggest challenge can be in understanding the value of the IP and the business opportunities it can create. These opportunities could include franchising, licensing, collaborating and securing investment.

It is also necessary to review the IP identified and to ensure that any new IP created is properly considered.  Discussion about your intellectual assets should form a part of the strategic narrative in your business plan.

SMEs that can identify, protect and manage their IP go on to generate value and monetise their efforts. This creates employment and enriches the market, offering consumers a broader choice of new and better products and services. We recognise that SMEs need the right support to navigate this journey. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) in the UK provides a catalogue of IP information, guidance and support to SMEs for when they most need it.

We have developed our range of free to access resources on our IP for Business website, IP Audits scheme and in addition, our package of webinars, events and practical guides. These tools are aimed at supporting businesses to recognise their IP assets, their value and how to protect them appropriately. Importantly, the tools will help businesses identify the opportunities to commercialise their IP, leading to the best possible chances for business growth.

Help is available to keep business advisors up to speed with IP, too. The IPO has developed its flagship IP Masterclass, which is now being delivered virtually in response to the pandemic, to provide business advisors with the competence and confidence to engage their clients routinely on IP and IP rights. In the last 3 years, the IPO has supported advisors to reach over 60,000 businesses, helping them to set solid foundations.

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Additionally, the IPO has established relationships with a range of business intermediaries. We have a proud and longstanding partnership with the British Library and the Business and IP Centres, who offer invaluable practical guidance and signpost information and resources. Their network supports businesses across the UK to take practical steps in recognising their IP assets, getting their products to market and reaping the financial rewards.

Our aim across all our support is to ensure that SMEs make informed decisions in respect of their IP assets and to ensure that IP is included as an integral part of business planning. IP makes life better for everyone. Making the most of IP helps SMEs to thrive and, ultimately, make a valuable contribution to helping the UK Build Back Better.

For more information on our free business tools and activities at our Intellectual Property for Business site on GOV.UK  go to http://bit.ly/IPOBusinessTools

25 April 2021

How has IP played its part in finding a Covid-19 vaccine?

It has been just over a year since the WHO declared a global pandemic. Today, we have the widespread rollout of a number of vaccines to combat Covid-19. 

It’s worth pausing to reflect on the enormity of this. It’s unprecedented. 

While all countries are a way off from vanquishing this deadly disease, we have a window of opportunity and reason to be hopeful that one day we will have control over it. 

How have we made such progress, so far? 

Today is World IP day. A year ago, I wrote about how Intellectual Property will play a major part in vaccine development. This is its follow-up. 

And you won’t be surprised to discover that it has. Innovation protected by Intellectual Property has delivered results. 

I want to follow-up by going into some of the specific innovations deployed, looking at what IP has been covered and secondly, what policy makers may choose to do to maximise the uptake of vaccines in all regions around the world. 

Recent moves by around 100 countries, led by India and South Africa are asking WTO members to agree to a time-limited lifting of IP rights. IP has never been more prominent in the debate of how to vaccinate the world.

What IP is required for creating a vaccine? 

Covid vaccine hakan-nural-jNs8ZNLbdaU-unsplash

But first, to better understand how IP applies to vaccine development, it’s helpful to imagine making a vaccine by having a recipe. Within that ‘recipe’ are ingredients and some of those ingredients are created using patented bio-technology. Some are not. The unique combination of these 'ingredients' is a trade secret (another type of IP) and the method of manufacturing the vaccine is confidential know-how. 

It’s a common myth to assume a single patent covers one vaccine. A patent is one aspect, albeit an often essential one. 

But it’s the unique combination of all these elements, be they patents, trade secrets and know-how that create the final product and deliver the ultimate value, immune protection from Covid-19. 

We’ll look at each of these and see why it’s this combination of IP that’s at stake in allowing more countries access to the technology.

What patent technology has been used in Covid-19 vaccines? 

Patent 1

So when we’re talking about patents in vaccines, what exactly are we referring too? 

A patent protects inventions and or processes and are the primary form of IP protection that biopharmaceutical companies rely on to protect and commercialise their innovations and discoveries. Patents do not last forever and are limited to a standard twenty years (with some longer exceptions to cover R&D development time in the industry). 

There are also significant risks and costs associated with drug and vaccine development. Though arguably in the situation of a Covid-19 vaccine, these risks have been mitigated with large contracts from countries that guarantee a return on investment.  

So, are we able to have some idea of what patents have been recently used? In some of the current vaccines, yes. But there is often an 18-month delay between the filing of a patent and its publication, so we don’t have all the relevant patents associated with all the primary vaccines used. However, we do have some and we can make some educated guesses about others. 

Here's an IP overview of the vaccine technology in use, specifically for the Pfizer/Biotech, Oxford/Astrazeneca and Moderna vaccines approved for use in the UK.

Vaccine patents currently in use to fight Covid-19

Patent 2

Moderna has published all the patents used in their vaccine on their website. Furthermore, they have declared they will not enforce their patent rights against infringement. 

Of particular interest is the patent US10702600, Betacoronavirus MRNA Vaccine. Moderna have developed this using an artificial mRNA strand encoding a coronavirus gene. When injected the MRNAs are translated into virus proteins that stimulate an immune response. A key technique to build immunity against infection of Covid-19.

We can take a guess at the Astrazeneca’s Oxford collaboration by looking at previous patents filed by Oxford University, notably patent US9714435 Simian adenovirus and hybrid adenoviral vectors. This patent is based on a weakened version of a common cold (adenovirus) causing infection in chimpanzees. We know this was the area of research used in the development of the current vaccine, so a patent like this is an important step to more discoveries.

In regard to the Pzifer/BioNTech vaccine, less is known. Although we can see that BioNTech has a patent granted US10576146B2 Particles comprising a shell with RNA. This has likely contributed to some of the recent discoveries in their vaccine.

From an IP point of view, it’s also interesting to see that Pfizer/BioNTech have a trademark granted for their vaccine, which is called Comirnaty This is filed just in Trademark Classification 5, which is ‘vaccines for human use’. The name is purportedly a mash up of community, immunity, mRNA & Covid. Though this brand is not a household name, everyone has heard of the ‘Pzifer vaccine’. In these times, standard branding for pharmaceutical companies has clearly changed!

The power of trade secrets and know-how 

Patent 3

We have seen how a patent can play an important role in protecting the IP of vaccine development but it is a piece in the puzzle. Despite recent discussion of IP waivers for patents (something possible within existing laws). Of far more significance are areas not often talked about in relation to IP, trade secrets and know-how.

The ‘ingredients’ to the recipe may be complicated but making the product can be even more so. To give you some idea of what’s involved, a commentator in the industry has provided us a fascinating best guess here in Exploring the Supply Chain of the Pzifer Moderna Covid 19 Vaccines.

The fact that such a complicated process is involved with specialists and supply chains does put a brake on any potential freeing of patent rights. It’s all very well to have all the ingredients we need, it’s ‘baking the cake’ that requires significant resourcing and sharing of valuable industry knowledge. In other words, proprietary know-how.

This form of IP may be what’s holding up a generic vaccine being distributed more widely around the world. Pharmaceutical companies would argue that if all the know-how could be released, it would take up to a year to implement. A simpler solution, they argue, would be to increase the number of licenses to other companies being able to manufacture. They would still retain IP rights and be paid (presumably at a reasonable rate) for their IP rights.

Some redress to the current imbalances in global vaccine distribution is helped by schemes like COVAX though its effectiveness is also under review. 

These are the IP choices that policymakers around the world face. It’s likely that some balance of interests will need to be struck. 

Firstly, a recognition that public money has funded the significant sum of capital and mitigated some of the risks of development by bio-pharmaceutical companies. But also acknowledging that we have a vaccine so quickly because of an effective, existing infrastructure of private and public research over many years. Their strength and skills have been enabled from the IP system in the first place! 

As is often stated, we live in unprecedented times, and I suspect an unprecedented public/private agreement over IP rights and redistribution will find a way through the challenges of global production and supply, one hopes quickly and effectively.

A cause for hope

In time, these questions and issues will become clearer. But my hope is that the development of these multiple vaccines against Covid-19 will be viewed as one of the great scientific achievements of the 21st Century.  

Comparable to the Apollo programme or the microchip in the 20th?

I think so. Like millions of others, I’ve never been more inspired by joining a queue to receive my dose. It’s IP and innovation that has got us this far and it’ll require more innovative ways to extend this incredible benefit to all.