On IP and secrecy: The relevance of intellectual property rights to design-led start-up businesses

Matthias Hillner

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This paper will unveil how design-led start-up businesses can enhance their growth potential through securing exclusive access to intellectual property (IP). Many design-led start-up companies commonly see themselves confronted with a dilemma in that they need funds for the design development of their offerings, prototyping, field tests etc., as well as for overheads on the one hand, and for IP on the other.
In their book, 'The Smart Entrepreneur', Clarysse and Kiefer claim that 'Patents are particularly important when your business is not close to market, because the exclusivity afforded by a solid patent can buy you some time by preventing competitors from encroaching on your idea while you develop applications.' (p.127) The UK Design Council on the other hand suggests to 'Approach patenting with caution. Multinational cover is expensive and premature filing can do more harm than good' (www.designcouncil.org.uk). Clarysse and Kiefer admit that '...a patent suit can cost $10-15 million and drag on for several years' (p.93). This beckons the question as to what is the best IP strategy for a design-led start-up. Is a patent an effective means for start-ups to overcome competition?
In search for an answer, this paper will show a range of case studies of award winning British designs including the SEA Interface, a patent-pending platform technology for building pressure-sensitive touch interfaces, Cupris, a smartphone-enabled clinical device that transmits data between patients and healthcare practitioners, Yossarian Lives, a novel metaphor-based database search engine, and Arctica, a highly sustainable ventilation system. The inventors of these technologies will be interviewed in relation to their IP strategy, and in relation to their personal views on the international patenting system.
The comparative study of interviews will identify the best approach to IP protection for design entrepreneurs whose funds are limited. Through reconciling the seemingly opposed views expressed by the Design Council Design Council on the one hand, and Clarysse and Kiefer on the other, this paper will discuss how designers can optimize the form and timing for IP protection for their start-up businesses.
The author has previously received a business development award from NESTA (The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), and was subsequently involved in the Design London business incubator scheme, which was the birthplace of some of the ventures listed above. He is now studying for PhD at the Department for Service Design at the Royal College of Art in London, UK.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2013
EventInternational Congress of International Association of Societies of Design Research (IASDR) - Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan
Duration: 24 Aug 201330 May 2014


ConferenceInternational Congress of International Association of Societies of Design Research (IASDR)


  • intellectual property, design, entrepreneurialism, business development, exclusivity, innovation, design management


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