World IP Day 2021 focuses on SMEs, and how IP supports them in taking their ideas to market. Ben Buchanan is a Deputy Director at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), IPO Diversity and Inclusion Champion and the current Chair of IP Inclusive Management. He reflects on what his organisation is doing to make its services more inclusive and easily accessible for UK entrepreneurs, creators and businesses of all sizes.
The IPO is vocal in its aims to be an inclusive organisation for its people. Of its three corporate pillars, one is “to be a brilliant place to work”. It has been named in the top 100 most inclusive employers in Britain by Stonewall. It is also in the Top 10 of the Working Families Index, a Chwarae Teg “Fair Play” employer and has a healthy mix of staff networks (IPO Inclusion and Diversity Report 2019-20).
This bears testament to the IPO’s efforts to make the organisation inclusive on the inside. Taking the 360 degree view, how inclusive are the IPO’s IP rights services for its customers? What is it doing about making IP rights and guidance more easily accessible for creators, inventors, entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes, and that includes of course SMEs?
SMEs – small in size but not in stature
We need only to glance at the UK’s back story to see entrepreneurship in abundance running through it like a thread that joins the centuries. Today, the UK is seen as a respected centre of innovation and creativity on the world stage.
Small businesses play their part. Did you know that 99% of businesses in the UK are small to medium sized enterprises – SMEs? There are 6 million SMEs in the UK, and they contribute 21% of the UK’s turnover (Gov.uk January 2020).
Throughout the last year, businesses worldwide have had to focus on weathering the Coronavirus pandemic. The emphasis has been on surviving, improving resilience and setting a new course for recovery. That has meant diversifying, adapting and reinventing.
While SMEs often have fewer resources on which they can draw during the hard times, IP ownership, and the profits that IP can generate, are a potential lifeline. IP can be owned by businesses of all sizes, not just big industry. Innovation is acknowledged to be an essential asset that will help businesses, and ultimately the UK, “Build Back Better”.
On the level
Every business starts with an idea. The challenge that those businesses face, whatever their size, is getting that idea to market. Inventors, creators, businesses of all sizes deserve to be able to make the most of their rights, wherever they live and whatever their social status, in a fair and inspirational IP system.
Innovation and creativity are central to the government’s £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. The commitment is to “level up” economic opportunities for all areas of the UK. The IPO’s work will specifically support this.
The newly established IPO “Places Strategy” has a “places focus” approach. This will ensure that greater consideration is given to ensuring that the IPO’s decision-making impacts all UK areas fairly.
As part of this plan, our Regional IP Policy Advisor network is being expanded to provide support across more regions. Meanwhile, our engagement with key influencers, policy makers and other government departments will continue to ensure our consistency across the spread of UK geographical locations.
The gender agenda
We know that the under-representation of women in specialist STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) roles is a national issue. The IPO, with its specialist patent and trade mark examiner roles, is already swimming against the gender tide.
A robust Gender Pay Gap Action Plan, a refreshed recruitment policy and a new mentoring programme seek to redress the balance. IPO’s STEM Returner Scheme recently saw 7 people successfully start a structured 12-week placement to resume their STEM careers; a challenge often faced by women. It won’t happen overnight, but we are doing all we can to reduce the gender pay gap.
But what is the gender breakdown of our appeal to IP rights applicants?
The UK has been home to some incredibly strong female innovators who have changed the course of history. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who brought inoculation to the UK, is a topical name to mention.
Female inventors have almost doubled in numbers over the last 20 years, according to the IPO’s “Gender Profiles in Worldwide Patenting” report in 2019. We set out to understand worldwide trends in the gender of inventors patenting their innovations. We found that while there is an upward trend in female to male ratio on a per country basis, the figure still falls short of patented inventions filed by men. In 2017 only 12.7% of patent inventors were women, compared to 6.8% in 1998. There is still a lot of work to be done.
Closer to home
You can’t beat the voice of experience when it comes to guiding a business on the most profitable course. One barrier to growing a small concern can be consultancy costs.
The IPO helps steer businesses onto a positive path with its free library of online tools. They have been accessed more than 204,680 times.
The IP Health Check helps businesses identify and understand the IP assets they own. IP for Business has a range of topics and online learning. Funded IP Audits help small businesses considered to be on a fast-growth track.
IP tools, from non-disclosure agreement templates to IP for Investment advice, help businesses identify, protect and assess their IP assets in the context of their business strategy. The IPO attaché network is there to help businesses who want to trade overseas, while the Lambert Toolkit is a guide for fruitful university to business research collaboration.
Finally, the IPO events calendar lists a rolling programme of webinars, IP Masterclass sessions and events.
Equipping our future innovators
The IPO has an IP education framework in place that defines the IP knowledge, skills and attitudes needed by young people. The IPO’s IP education programme starts with its Cracking Ideas partnership with the animation outfit Aardman. It follows on with The Future Innovators Toolkit (FIT) which provides Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) tools for teachers to introduce IP at any point in the curriculum.
IP Tutor Plus, a tool for university lecturers, explains what IP is and how it fits into students’ future careers. IP for Research helps PhD students and researchers to understand the importance of IP in maximising the impact of their research.
Accessibility benchmarking in the IP world
We work hard on making our IP tools and website simple to understand and accessible. Our efforts have been rewarded. For the last 2 years, the IPO website has been judged top out of the 50 most accessible IP offices around the world by the IP magazine World Trade Mark Review. The judging looked at access for those with screen readers and/or users with disabilities such as sight impairment.
Minding our language
The Intellectual Property Office started out as the Patent Office in 1852, so it’s no surprise that some of the language in our manuals is ripe for an update.
We are redressing the balance. A group initiative on the part of the IPO Patents division recently looked at 185 chapters and 1028 pages of the MoPP – the Manual of Patent Practice. The task identified 496 instances of gendered language. Using a “crowd sourced” approach, the language is now being updated.
One IPO Transformation
This month we launched our One IPO Transformation programme. This is our most recent – and ongoing – initiative to make it simpler for everyone to access IP rights.
It’s a five-year programme that will digitise our services and make it easier for businesses to register and manage their rights. Users will be able to access all the IPO’s services through a single, integrated system, and manage all of their IP rights in one place, seamlessly. We hope that the benefits will be felt by many, particularly time- and resource-pressed SMEs.
So, to finalise, happy World IP Day everyone, and rest assured that in supporting businesses to Build Back Better, the IPO will continue in its aim to ensure that inclusion is a normal everyday right not only for SMEs, but for every one of our customers and people too.