Lab Notes

23 Nov 2005 | News | Update from University of Warwick
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network
On the glut of patenting, BASF's rising research budget, football fever in the Commons, and other insights into R&D management

On the glut of patenting, BASF’s rising research budget, football fever in the Commons, and other insights into R&D management

Too busy to read what they write about R&D? Never fear. At Science|Business we love this stuff. Here’s the cream off the top of recent publications.

Do you really need to patent that?

It may seem a bit odd when Jeremy Philpott, the marketing executive for the Patent Office, complains of too much patenting going on. But his point, made in the article "Don't put grit in the wheels of invention" which appeared in The Edge, the magazine put out by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK to tell the world about the research it supports, is that there are pitfalls behind the notion that companies should patent everything that moves.

"There is clearly a link between patents and innovation," says Philpott. "But this can lead to a flawed assumption that more patents are necessarily a good thing when it comes to encouraging innovation." He refers to the desire of companies in the US to be able to patent "pure business methods," something not allowed in the EU. He then discusses this in the context of the Internet revolution of the past decade. Philpott makes the point that patents find it hard to keep up with the pace of change here. "Software development is a fast-paced world, at odds with the geological time-scales of some patent application procedures, so spending time and money on a patent for a computer based invention which will be obsolete long before the patent is granted is often not in the interests of the developer."

We were particularly taken by his suggestion that many businesses are wasting their time trying to patent ideas that have been around for a while."A search through a patent database with regard to any specific technology can be a chastening experience when you discover how frequently the same 'inventions' appear. Time and again patents are applied for which relate to inventions already disclosed in earlier patent applications. Why do businesses continue to make these mistakes and waste so much money (estimated at 20 billion euros a year across Europe) on technology already disclosed in patents? Why do they expensively develop home-grown solutions when it would be cheaper to buy-in a solution already patented by an ally in the same sector?"

The take home message is that "Seemingly the chase to acquire patents of their own blinds some companies to the wisdom of studying their competitor's patents before investing in their own R&D."

The UK Patent Office consults

One way to discourage patenting is to make it hard work. But that isn't the idea, so if you have ever cursed the forms you have to fill in when applying for patents in the UK now is your chance to let the authorities know about it. There is a consultation process under way. The idea is to cut out unnecessary bits of paper.

BASF increases R&D spend

"BASF is increasing research and development expenditure to €1,150 million in 2006 - 180 additional scientific staff in the company's worldwide research Verbund," says the company. This adds up to "about 18 perc ent or €180 million more than in 2004 (not including expenditure for oil and gas exploration). Compared to 2004, the proportion of corporate research will increase by €65 million to €250 million, while the remaining funds will be contributed by the operating divisions."

The announcement also revealed: "New competence center for nanotechnology in Singapore". "In expanding research activities in the 'Growth Cluster White Biotechnology', BASF is putting to work its wide-ranging expertise in enzyme catalysis and the fermentative production of amino acids and vitamins to generate new products and processes outside the existing main areas of interest of fine chemicals and intermediates." "In the 'Growth Cluster Plant Biotechnology', BASF is pursuing the goal of being one of the world's leading companies in this field by the year 2010."

Functional foods - the mission's position

Another DTI Global Watch Mission has been on the road. This time they went to Japan and Singapore to look at "functional foods". They wanted to find out "how food manufacturers formulate and market processed foods containing functional ingredients and protect ingredient functionality through processing".

Among other things, the missionaries found that "In both Singapore and Japan, companies, polytechnics and universities have a much longer-term strategy than in the UK, developing significant research programmes over many years."

Their bottom line is that "Overall there will be an increasing stream of processed functional ingredients from Japan, and from academic institutions in Singapore, which will need clinical validation with European populations, and an adequate legislative framework to be marketed and recognised in the UK and Europe."

The mission managed to find a maker of motorcycles, Yamaha Motor Co, claiming an "anti-ageing product". As the report puts it, this was "not the effect on middle-aged men who rediscover their youth by buying a motorcycle, but an anti-ageing antioxidant ingredient called astaxanthin. The product comes out of Yamaha environmental research with microalgae."

Germany should make life easier for innovative SMEs

The German government should think about implementing economic policy measures to make life easier for SMEs involved in innovation. The Centre for European Economic Research (Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung - ZEW) and KfW Bankengruppe carried out a study for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. This found that "in the period from the end of the 1990s until the year 2003 the number of SMEs that successfully engaged in innovative activities fell by roughly 10,000 to 83,000 enterprises". And yet Germany is seen as a country where SMEs are "the backbone of innovative activities".

The press release announcing the study says that in the year 2003 there were about 5000 high-tech startups. In Germany, says the study, around 29,000 SMEs are into R&D, with a total spend of €3 billion. The study suggests that the German government could make a special effort to come up with incentives targeted at SMEs that are active in research but that are on the fringes of the group. These, it says, may be "on the verge of abandoning their R&D activities because they think that continuing the R&D activities will produce lower returns in the future".

Germany also has around 2,000 "R&D service providers" which depend on the demand for R&D services from industry. These businesses "depend strongly on the R&D cycles in the industries of their customers". The study makes the interesting observation that the trend towards stronger support for R&D cooperation between industry and the base could cause problems for R&D service providers "if such support is geared towards applied R&D because in such an event the universities and other research institutions would increasingly appear in the market for R&D services as (subsidised) competitors".

Football fever in the House of Commons

Not being football fans, we always raise an eyebrow when people in the public eye proclaim their allegiance to a particular team. We have to admit, though, that football can offer some amusing, and sometimes useful, analogies. A recent outburst of football mania happened in the middle of an evidence taking session in the House of Commons in the UK.

Ostensibly about "Strategic Science Provision In English Universities," the football thing came up when the MPs were quizzing the experts before them about the divide between research universities and teaching universities. Sir Howard Newby, until recently Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, responded to the football theme. "Who would have guessed twenty years ago that universities like Warwick, York and so on would be where they are now, both in terms of research and in terms of teaching excellence? As always in higher education, I am afraid, these things take time, but it is indeed the case that universities rise and fall."

The problem is that it is getting harder for universities to rise to the top of the heap. As Sir Howard put it: "One could argue that it is getting increasingly difficult in the university world, as it is indeed in football. We have a Premier League in football, financed in rather different ways to the Football League. I worry a lot about the gap that is growing between the Premier League and the Football League in football, and I would worry a lot if the gap between a premier league of universities and the rest of the sector had got so wide that it was impossible to cross."

IP and the biome

The National Research Council in the USA has produced a report on IPR and genomics research. The press release tells us that "Intellectual property (IP) restrictions rarely impose significant burdens on biomedical research, but there are reasons to be apprehensive about their future impact on scientific advances in this area".

Lots of advice to government and others. For example, the release says that: "Genomic and proteomic research depends on rapidly changing technology and complex theory, the report emphasizes. USPTO should create a formal mechanism, such as an advisory board of leading scholars in these fields, to inform examiners of new developments and research directions."

European Enterprise Awards

Busy entrepreneurs are always looking for things to while away the hours. They could do worse than enter the new EU awards. Several categories. With objectives that are dear to the heart of Science|Business, mainly to encourage entrepreneurship and spread best practice. Be a devil. Enter and send us a share of the prize. Come to think of it, maybe we should put in our own entry.

Harnessing genomic research

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council reports on the progress of one of its LINK programmes, Appgen. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Medical Research Council also put money into the programme.

LINK programmes were once flavour of the month with the research councils. After a dismal start, they became the preferred model for encouraging university industry links. They were also the main route for funnelling government support for R&D into the private sector. Now the Technology Programme backs businesses without any need for academic connections. Check the PDF file for a quick guide to genomics, and details of research supported through LINK.

Healthcare prize for Southampton spin-out

"iQur has scooped the 2005 Medical Futures Department of Health Award for Best National Healthcare Innovation for its Hepatitis C diagnostic service, that can revolutionise the cost-effectiveness of treatment for Hepatitis C. iQur, formerly named HepCgen Limited, spun out from the University of Southampton in 2003," says the university. IP2IPO is one of the investors. iQur recently completed another funding round.

EPSRC's Spintronics Brochure

Thanks to our own quick guide to spintronics, you should know what the word means. Now you can add to your understanding with this brochure from the real experts. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council doesn't just explain the science, it also tells you what the council supports in the area, at an investment of around £3.5 million this year. So if you are interested in following the science from lab to profit margins, here's another place to start. Note the bit where they say "The field of spintronics is relatively young and it is difficult to predict how it will evolve. New physics is still being discovered and new materials being developed, such as magnetic semiconductors and exotic oxides that manifest an even more extreme effect called Colossal Magnetoresistance." And we thought giant magnetoresistance sounded neat.

Degussa establishes Science to Business Center...

"Science to Business" seems to be Degussa's R&D thrust at the moment, and who are we to say that they are not on to something?

In April it was nanotechnology. Now it is biotechnology. Or rather "white biotechnology" which they tell us is "the term used to describe sustained, industrial manufacturing processes that are primarily based on natural, biological resources". "We will be investing 50 million euros in the new Science to Business Center Bio over the next five years," the press release quotes Utz-Hellmuth Felcht, Chairman of the Degussa Management Board. "We regard this also as an acknowledgement of Germany's position as a center of research." The company spends €345 million a year on R&D and employs about 3,100 researchers.

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