Innovation - and by extension IP - has never been more important for cleantech companies. According to the International Energy Agency, for every $1 spent on fossil fuels, $1.7 is now spent on clean energy. Five years ago this ratio was 1:1.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF INNOVATION IN CLEANTECH?
Broadly speaking, innovation may fall into one of the following types:
- Disruptive innovation, or (re)inventing a technology to disrupt an existing sector.
- Sustaining innovation, in which the sector and problem to be solved are known, and improvements to a product or process are more evolutionary than revolutionary.
- Breakthrough innovation, where a problem is known but the solution arises from an unexpected source.
- Basic research, the foundation for discovery that grows the knowledge base for scientific progress (and, by extension, technological and societal progress).
ALIGNING IP TO YOUR COMMERCIAL GOALS
The innovation types shown above are not mutually exclusive, and those under point 2 can often be overlooked within a business. Whether a company is a start-up, a spin-out, an SME, or a corporation, it is important to consider which types of innovation give the ‘best fit’ to one’s commercial activities.
Anyone, an individual, SME, large corporate can engage in all these types of innovation, and the size of a company should not prevent discovery research. Within the UK, for example, the EPSRC Prosperity Partnerships support the collaboration of UK-based businesses and universities in conducting discovery research to solve a business need. Offshore wind and solar cells are among the technologies to have benefitted from these funding opportunities.
IS HIGHER-RISK INNOVATION WORTH IT?
Innovation where both the sector and problem are established may have fewer commercial risks than ‘blue skies’ basic research. For example, there is a clear demand for fuel cells and hydrogen technologies, and carbon capture.
On the other hand, continued innovation in a shrinking sector (whether through a decline in consumer demand or through government and/or regulator policy changes, for example) could prove fatal to an enterprise. On this point, conversely, having a long-term view as to why policy is changing can help you pick the right market opportunities.
Of course, higher-risk innovation - finding a new problem and its solution - gives a head start on commercial exploitation and, therefore, improved prospects for market leadership - provided you can convince investors that there is a market - or there WILL be a market.
THE ROLE OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY IN CLEANTECH
In their study High-growth firms and intellectual property rights, published in May 2019, the European Patent Office and European Union Intellectual Property Office showed that SMEs that have filed at least one IP right are 21% more likely to experience a growth period afterwards and are 10% more likely to become a high-growth firm. Such a correlation does not indicate a causal effect, but nonetheless suggests a stronger ability of an SME that has filed an IP right to sustain growth.
Elsewhere, in an October 2021 blog post, the International Monetary Fund commented:
“An increase in the stock of patents by 1 percent can increase productivity per worker by 0.04 percent. That may not sound like much, but it adds up. Small increases over time improve living standards."
We consider that a holistic, forward-looking innovation strategy, coupled with an IP strategy tailored to the needs of a business, can help to build commercial value and plan for the future.