Jack Ellis

A partnership between the world’s largest carbonated beverages brand and the serial inventor behind a wearable insulin pump for diabetics might not sound like the most obvious of hook-ups. But an IP-driven deal between Coca-Cola and Dean Kamen is enabling the former to revolutionise its product offering, while the latter’s water purification technology reaches communities that desperately need it.

At last week’s Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing conference in Phoenix, Arizona, Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer told delegates about his company’s rollout of Freestyle – a touchscreen soda fountain that allows users to pick flavour combinations and effectively design their own drinks. Coca-Cola brought in Kamen – founder of DEKA Research & Development and perhaps most renowned for inventing the Segway – during Freestyle’s product development stages in order to leverage DEKA’s fluid measuring and distributing technology that had initially been developed for controlled delivery of chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients.

Apart from a few exceptions, Kamen did not demand that Coca-Cola licence the bulk of the technology that he had brought to the table to help bring Freestyle to fruition. Instead, he asked the drinks company to do him a favour in return.

DEKA had developed a water purification device called Slingshot, which Kamen intended to be used in regions with little access to safely potable water. However, he lacked the resources necessary to get Slingshot to those regions. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is one of the few brands whose products you are just as likely to see being sold and consumed in a remote village in a developing country as you are in the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan cities. So instead of requiring Coca-Cola to pay patent royalties, Kamen requested that the beverages company use its extensive global distribution channels to deliver Slingshot to places where it could have a positive impact. Thanks to the deal with Coke, Kamen now hopes that Slingshot will have been delivered to five million entrepreneurs in regions with poor drinking water access by 2020. They will then be able to sell water purified by the device to their local communities.

IP has had a crucial role in this story, as realistically the deal could not have been struck without it. If Kamen hadn’t owned patents on his fluid measuring technology, then Coca-Cola may not have invited him to take a role in the R&D project; while it definitely would not have been compelled to negotiate licensing terms with him. For its part, Coke gets access to technology to develop and commercialise Freestyle and has also received a reputational boost from being associated with a great humanitarian story. Most critically of all, without IP enabling the Kamen/Coke hook-up, isolated communities in need of clean drinking water may have been denied the opportunity to utilise Slingshot.

With high stakes patent litigation, trademark bullying, concerns about the length of copyright, the hype surrounding software patents and NPEs, and other issues so dominating the headlines, it is good to hear a story which demonstrates that at their most fundamental level IP rights are an enabling mechanism: they make things happen that would be far more difficult to achieve without them. All of us – whether inside or outside the IP bubble, whether pro-IP or sceptic – would do well to remember that.