Reflections of a CDT student on completing a summer placement in the patent profession

20th August 2018

Last month, Lauren Cane of cohort 2 completed a summer placement at Dehns, a leading firm of patent and trade mark attorneys. Here she shares her thoughts on patents and the intersection of science, law and commerce.

Throughout my time in the CDT I have become increasingly interested in patents and the role they play in stimulating technological development. The CDT-CMP covers many areas of research that are rapidly being used in industry including semiconductor devices, optoelectronics and 2D materials. I believe it is crucial that this innovative work is transferred into real-world applications. In the 2018 Industrial Strategy White Paper the Prime Minister wrote, “We are not fulfilling Britain’s potential if, despite having scientists and universities renowned the world over, we cannot turn their ideas into the products and services on which the industries of the future will be built.” In line with this thinking, both the universities of Bristol and Bath have Research Commercialisation Departments dedicated to facilitating technology transfer. A key element of this process can be patent protection.

There are generally two routes to market for academics with a granted patent. It can be licensed to existing companies or the business-savvy academic can start a spinout company of their own, using patent protection to support their case for development funding. There are many benefits of a thriving patent portfolio that go beyond income generation: it raises the profile of the university, supports research funding applications and encourages fruitful collaborations with industry. Just this month, a Bristol University spinout, Ziylo, was acquired by a global healthcare company in a $800 million deal that made regional BBC news.

Completing a summer placement at Dehns gave me the opportunity to experience what it takes to obtain patent protection from the point of view of a patent attorney. Firstly, the key features of the invention are established and written into a set of claims. These claims must be carefully worded as they define the scope of protection provided by the patent. To gain maximum protection they should be as broad as possible whilst remaining distinct from anything already in the public domain. To be granted a patent, the invention must not only be new, it must also be considered ‘inventive’. Often the most time-consuming part of obtaining a patent is convincing a patent examiner that the invention satisfies these two criteria. Whether a patent is granted is ultimately the examiner’s decision.

During the placement I was asked to respond to patent examiners who had found prior art that they believed disproved the novelty or inventiveness of a client’s invention. It amazed me that the novelty of modern inventions can be brought into question by patents that are more than 20 years old: this is the power of a broadly written claim.

Over 400 years since the first British patent was granted, I believe that the patent system continues to benefit society today. This is largely because, in exchange for patent protection, the invention must enter the public domain. A key requirement of a patent application is that it includes enough information for the invention to be replicated, thereby allowing others to build on and further develop the idea. A patent is valid for 20 years which gives the inventor long enough to monopolise on business development or licensing opportunities yet is short enough to encourage others to learn from the invention and use it in their own work. The patent system thereby prevents technological developments remaining behind closed doors and stimulates further advances.