A challenge to the status quo

A brave move by Procter & Gamble has bolstered an industry initiative designed to protect intellectual property rights, says Emma Rubach

It seems the tide could be turning for designers fed up with worrying about having their ideas stolen. On 18 September, 122 delegates from the field of product design gathered in London for the launch of the Open Innovation Challenge. They were there to hear Procter & Gamble lay out the areas in which it is seeking new ideas, as part of its goal to source 50 per cent of new product ideas from outside its own labs. But, perhaps more importantly, they also witnessed the launch of a revolutionary new concept in intellectual property protection (DW 12 September).

It is the first time a major company has come on board the Open Innovation Challenge programme, a joint venture between the National Endowment For Science, Technology and the Arts, British Design Innovation and Oakland Innovation. If it is successful, more large companies will be pledging their interest, potentially rewriting the book in terms of the amount of control designers have over their ideas and, the organisers hope, pushing forward innovation in the UK by removing the main stumbling block to it – the fear of design theft.

‘There’s a feeling that we’ve hit on something that was a major problem for the market, but hadn’t been discussed,’ says BDI chief executive Maxine Horn. ‘A lot of deals get stuck in the pipeline because, prior to this development, there was no one to mediate between the corporation and the innovator. If it’s successful, this will open up a whole raft of opportunities as other companies follow suit.’

The major selling point of the programme – apart from the chance of presenting ideas to a major player like P&G – is the fact that Nesta and the other organisers have pledged to protect designers’ IP through a mediation process, which means P&G will not see the ideas until they have been developed to the commercial stage. After that, if the ideas are selected for viewing by the packaged goods giant, it will have 90 days to accept or reject an idea, with IP being maintained by the innovator either way.

Designers have every right to be terrified of having their ideas pinched. Despite a spate of high-profile design theft cases – New Look, for example, had to pay out £80 000 to Jimmy Choo for copying a sandal design – this is the tip of the iceberg. More insidious is the stealing of designs at the ideas stage, when IP rights are murky and designers know that, to pitch effectively, they must risk exposing themselves to the spectre of ideas theft. In fact, the problem is getting worse, according to Dids McDonald, chief executive of Anti Copying In Design. ‘Often designers don’t register their designs,’ she says. ‘It’s expensive – £60 a design in the UK. If you don’t have a registered design, it creates real problems later on if you have to challenge someone.’

Current methods of protecting IP include the move towards selling designs on a royalties or licensing basis, such as that adopted by Sprout Design, which retains the IP rights to all its designs. The consultancy is licensing a chair made out of video consoles to Applied Design. ‘IP is a bit of a free-for-all,’ says its managing director Rob Brown. ‘Designers have to fight for what they can get.’

Part of the reason for suspicion among innovators is the fact that companies like P&G steadfastly refuse to sign non-disclosure agreements – not necessarily because they want to gobble up ideas, but because they risk losing their own IP if, say, the same idea is coincidentally in development already. Meanwhile, companies generally refuse to look at designs that are not already patented. As a result, many designers cannot afford to pursue an idea – which they cannot trust will sell – through to patent stage. The Open Innovation Challenge seeks to remedy this by giving ten of the most promising proposals access to feedback, advice and up to £25 000 (funded by Nesta’s lottery grant and P&G) so that their ideas can be developed to a stage where they demonstrate commercial viability.

‘This scheme can get us past these hurdles,’ says Geoff McCormick, business development director for Alloy, who attended the launch. ‘It enables us to share ideas and technology – it’s the chance everyone is looking for.’

The new idea seems to have been received positively across the board. McDonald welcomes it, saying, ‘What Nesta is doing is key, and the fact that a manufacturer like P&G is responding to the challenge is terrifically positive.’

Meanwhile, smaller design groups are also excited about the potential access to market it gives them. ‘You feel there’s a cushion between you and the possibility of getting your fingers burned,’ says Andy Dray, creative director for Ratio Design Associates. ‘Designers are slowly getting more business savvy, but it grates because we are designers, first and foremost. By having a third party involved, we are less exposed to the risk of idea theft.’

Horn confirms that there are major plans to expand the concept, opening it up to universities and other industry sectors. ‘Given the Government’s focus on entrepreneurialism and knowledge capital, this offers a fantastic way to unlock collaborative innovation,’ she says.

OPEN INNOVATION CHALLENGE

• The Open Innovation Challenge was created by British Design Innovation (www.britishdesign.co.uk) in collaboration with Nesta (www.nesta.org.uk) and research consultancy Oakland Innovation (www.oakland.co.uk)

• Procter & Gamble is the first company to join the challenge. It has committed to sourcing 50% of new designs from outside its own labs

• Details of the two P&G briefs, which are in the fabric care and well-being sectors, can be found on BDI’s website

• Details of P&G’s other design requirements can be found at its open innovation site, www.pgconnectdevelop.com

• Anyone can join the OIC. However, be aware that P&G is looking for major breakthrough innovations capable of becoming global $100m (£49.5m) businesses

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