Innovating during a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a turbulent time for the apparel and textiles industry, with formidable challenges being faced by our partners and stakeholders. However, one positive consequence that we at the Twinery have witnessed during these otherwise trying times has been a significant uptick in innovation. Whether it is rapidly developed and deployed PPE-related technologies, creative problem solving initiatives or even collaborative WFH solutions connecting us to each other; many fields have seen new innovations surfacing at a fast clip, and from non-typical avenues and groups.
As a result, it is worthwhile revisiting a previous Twinery blog post on the role of Patents (linked here), and consider how the new normal has impacted this arena. For example, if you, as an entrepreneur, apply for a provisional patent today, it comes into effect quicker than before, allowing you a faster recourse for protecting and capitalizing on innovations created in direct response to COVID-19. This has become such an important issue that the US Patent Office (USPTO) has opened up a specific fast track for COVID-19 related patents. linked here https://www.uspto.gov/initiatives/covid-19-prioritized-examination-pilot)
There is also the additional consideration that, since people have increasingly begun working from home, they have more time to think about big ideas and solve bigger problems related to workflows, process automation and other ways to optimize operations. This may result in domain-specific IP that could, one day, offshoot into an entirely new future product portfolio, so it must be accounted for ahead of time. Thus ensuring potentially valuable intellectual assets don’t fall by the wayside when things return to some semblance of normality. At the same time, even when we all go back physically to our places of work, the likelihood of looming new outbreaks/virus strains/threats would make it prudent to maintain the capacity to quickly and easily spin up our WFH operations, so we are not caught off guard once again.
To better formalize processes to spur on, or even capture, research and development occurring at your employees’ homes, there should be a culture of innovation put in place akin to ours at the Twinery. This can be achieved by encouraging greater brainstorming opportunities that encompass more diverse and cross functional groups, especially by tapping silos that are typically ignored or overlooked. Good ideas can truly come from anywhere.
It is also vital that we realize that our employees’ successful transition into a WFH life has made every company essentially a tech company, since many of our daily work processes have now shifted online. As such, our IP portfolio should also take that into account, keeping a special eye on the resulting, sparked innovations that may one day prove invaluable to our companies.
Keeping all this in mind, you should also incentivize the disclosure of new innovations by employees by offering recognition, monetary awards, or other types of compensation. Instead of making the search for IP a burden, make it a rewards-based activity. By showcasing and rewarding the best emerging or, better yet, submitted ideas, you will be ideally placed to both foster innovation and limit overall expenses. Encouraging this behavior during specific timeframes can also help better focus your IP and allow for taking important first steps like filing an IDR (Invention Disclosure Record).
It is also important to note the relevance of IP when it comes to pivoting your business, especially in these trying times. Highlighting this point is a recent SAP survey citing ASEAN-based businesses linked here https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/asean-business/eight-in-10-firms-expect-covid-19-to-change-business-models-survey) wherein approximately eight out of 10 business executives expressed the opinion that their business models or operations would adapt as a direct result of COVID-19, with only one in 100 expecting it to be ‘business as usual’ in the long run. As such, it ids safe to assume that many companies will likely have to go back to the drawing board in terms of the products they offer, with their latest corresponding innovations delivering more than just minor improvements to existing products.
In this case, since you will be looking at, basically, a new product portfolio, your IP strategy may have to also pivot to one which is more similar to that of a new company launching a new portfolio. At the same time, you can also consider earning additional revenue through selling or licensing any IP that you own. And even if your IP no longer has direct value, patent lawyers/professionals when mining your existing IP may find some overlap that will help in protecting your new product portfolio.
Since filing a patent is an investment in your business that could reap generational rewards, it is important that this remains active even in a small way. It is perfectly understandable that maintaining a costly IP function at present may prove too prohibitive, especially with so many other activities perceived as being essential having priority. But rather than completely ignoring IP, it may prove wiser to continue to cultivate IP assets with a view toward the longer term so that, when our current crisis is over, you have more room, and option, to grow in the future.
Cuts can be achieved in several ways. First, you can conserve your IP budget by slowing down related activity, maybe instead of a quarterly review of applications and milestones you can plan for an annual review. Further, there is also the provisional patents route mentioned previously. Again, this is a useful avenue because it stakes your claim first, even if you choose not to follow through. Also, there is the option to defer costs. For example, the USPTO offers trademark deadline extensions as a result of the COVID-19 related CARES Act. However, these extensions are only available to micro or small organizations, and only provide remedial help over limited circumstances so they may not be useful within the framework of longer term IP plans.
No matter the avenue or the strategy you employ, it is important to always keep in mind that your IP assets are a long term building block for your firm’s success. From startups to unicorns, every company benefits from keeping an eye on their IP. And, considering our age of constant, often overlapping and recurring crises, IP continues to remain even more relevant. So that when you emerge from COVID-19, or even what’s next, you have a host of new, and hopefully market-ready, innovations to show for it.