During his career as a patent attorney specialising in the life sciences – and with over two decades of experience at Katzarov – Gilles Pfend has worked with many SMEs, start-ups and universities in Switzerland and abroad to help protect their innovation. In this article, Gilles explains some of the key areas every innovator in the life sciences needs to know about when it comes to intellectual property and regulation.
IP (intellectual property) is fundamental for any scientist developing an innovation or discovery. There are various ways, including patents, designs and copyright, to obtain legal protection for IP, thus ensuring people can benefit from their inventions. A patent will protect an invention for a maximum of 20 years (or 25 years for a drug), during which time the patent owners are granted the exclusive right to their product or process.
Having IP in place is also essential to raise funds. It can take many years to benefit from any return on investment in a life science innovation, so a large amount of funding is usually needed to keep a project moving forward. With IP in place, you’re in a much better position to convince a potential investor to allocate a large sum to your start-up. So when should scientists start to think about IP?
Clarity and contracts are key
From the very start, researchers need to be very clear about who will own the IP for their invention. There is a clear distinction between the role of ‘author’ and ‘inventor’ on a patent. Unless a person helps to generate the ideas and concepts behind the invention, they aren’t an inventor. This means that not all the authors who will later be named as such in scientific journals will be included in the IP. It’s good practice to define roles clearly from the start and have agreements in place – that include an IP clause – with contractors, subcontractors and researchers.
Can you keep a secret?
When you’re working on an innovation, it can be tempting to shout it from the rooftops. It’s crucial, however, not to disclose information relating to your invention before filing the patent application.
Often, disclosing information too early stems from a misunderstanding of how protection works. In the US, there is what is called a novelty grace period, during which you can disclose your invention without destroying its novelty. This means you can still file a patent despite your invention being public knowledge. In Europe, however, if you disclose this information – be it on a poster, in an article or at a conference – it will no longer be considered novel. When developing a drug, for example, I strongly advise that you do not disclose its structure and stick to generic naming that doesn’t give anything away.