Jack Ellis

The IPBC brand came to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time yesterday. Hosted by IAM at the Sofitel in Melbourne, IPBC Australasia attracted around 200 delegates and speakers from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world. Reflecting the local market, most attendees were from the start-up and research sectors, with a significant number of large corporates also represented. Without giving too much away, here are a few of the main themes that emerged during the day’s sessions:

It’s different Down Under – Australia and New Zealand are two of the most highly developed countries in the Asia-Pacific region, but are also two of the most sparsely populated. Their economic success has been built on the back of a wealth of natural resources and sustained investment in primary industries, rather than the low-tech, high-tech manufacturing mix that neighbours farther north are better known for. At least partly due to this, IP – and patenting in particular – has typically not featured high on the list of priorities for Australian and New Zealand businesses, though the emergence of new, innovation-driven industries and accompanying policy agendas are gradually changing attitudes. On the other hand, Australia and New Zealand both boast sophisticated IP systems, as well as long-established and highly-regarded IP legal professions, dating back to the days of British imperial rule and taking their cue from the UK's common law framework.

Big inputs, small outputs – Another idiosyncrasy of the Australian and New Zealand IP landscape is that the lion’s share of investment in high-value, high-tech innovation is taking place in the publicly funded research sector, rather than in private sector enterprises. The issue that faces Australia and New Zealand is ensuring that some return is made on the significant sums of public money spent on R&D – and if that is to be done through implementation in products and services, then appropriate IP protection and business partnerships need to be secured. There have been a few notable successes in commercialising or monetising public IP assets – CSIRO’s assertion of its wireless networking patents in the United States being one example likely to be familiar to IAM readers – and the current Australian government’s ‘innovation agenda’ has been well-publicised. But in spite of being among the world’s top public spenders on R&D, Australia and New Zealand’s outputs in terms of IP assets appear to be thin on the ground. According to Coherent Cloud’s Adam Liberman, speaking on the day's first panel, only 1.8 patent applications are filed for every $1 billion of Australia’s GDP. “That’s just not good enough,” he said.

Building a strategy – Of course, that doesn’t mean that the issue of converting innovation into economic value can be solved simply by filing for more patents, as China has learned. Panellists in the day’s first session were in broad agreement on this point. “Just patenting everything is not an IP strategy,” said Brendan Cheong, head of patents and technical IP at Rio Tinto. “You need to know why you need a patent in the first place.” Fellow panellist Jane Perrier, special counsel for IP at Telstra, similarly stressed that patents are not always the best protection option from a commercial perspective; and, depending on your organisation’s main lines of business, patents may not be an option at all. “Some of our most valuable assets, such as databases, can’t get protection under IP laws, so we often have to rely on other methods, such as trade secrecy, contracts and licensing,” she explained. Joo Sup Kim of LG Electronics also stressed the importance of aligning IP strategy with the needs of the wider business, noting that sometimes purchasing patents from outside of the company could prove more effective; he gave the example of LG’s purchase of a portfolio of OLED-relevant patents, that enabled the company to commercialise some of tis technology and integrate it in products more rapidly.

Buyer opportunities? – The possibilities of putting an actual dollar value on IP assets in order to transact them in this way was a recurring theme throughout the day, and was the focus of the third session. This panel also explored the pros and cons of patent monetisation as a route for Australian and New Zealander IP owners – especially those in the public sector – to realise value from their R&D investments. However, it doesn’t seem that prospective patent buyers and NPEs looking for assertion partners should focus too much attention on the Australasian markets just yet – unless they have more than straight patent licensing in mind. “The NPEs and aggregators aren’t often an option for us,” said Alastair Hick, director of Monash University’s commercialisation arm. “Our ultimate aim is to turn our research into technologies that can benefit society, not just to use it to get licensing revenue.” He stressed that IP value could be seen in such terms as reputation and industry profile as well as cash, and that all these possible elements should be identified by IP owners when attempting to evaluate their assets.

Teaming up – Open innovation and collaboration offer another route for IP owners to leverage their assets and strengthen their competitive edge, and were also big talking points on the day. ‘Co-opetition’ – working with third parties, including competitors, to advance one’s own objectives – was mentioned more than once. In a market with many smaller, under-resourced players – and with much of the valuable technology in the hands of research organisations lacking in commercial nous – collaborations and co-opetitive partnerships would seem to be key to securing the region’s innovation-led future.