Why Intellectual Property is critical for startups The importance of IP should not be undermined by startups because of the long-term sustainable advantages it offers.

By Vikram Upadhyaya

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When entrepreneurs embark on that unique business idea that they have no doubt would be a commercial success in the market, their prime focus initially is how to actually start giving shape to the venture.

In the midst of numerous things that go into building a startup from scratch, the word "Intellectual Property' (IP) is often not their priority. And even if they consider IP protection, it seems too expensive a proposition for a startup to act on.

But what entrepreneurs should remember is that assessing IP implications is not just about protecting the work you are doing. It is also to check if someone else has an IP for similar work. Often, there could be others in different parts of the globe working on a similar idea, which you may not be even aware of.

What will happen if you find out one day that someone else has already patented that idea or product or solution that you have painstakingly developed?

Importance of IP protection

In today's competitive and dynamic environment, IP can be a unique selling proposition (USP) of the product or service, and it helps create a sustainable and defensible differentiator for the company.

By owning IP, a high entry barrier is created, thereby helping you to grow your venture faster with respect to your competitors' offerings. Note - IP is always given high weightage by the investors and creates good value for your venture.

IP has, in fact, been identified as the key ingredient for startups across the world to get a competitive advantage in the market, according to the Startup Genome Project that aims to map, model and analyse what it takes to make startups tick.

IP assumes even greater significance for technology startups, where new innovations are being made every day. There is a huge brand value attached to IP, in both the manufacturing and technology sector. It gives investors, clients, and other stakeholders a tremendous sense of confidence in your commitment and passion to not just succeed, but also become a market leader in your area of operation.

There are essentially three ways in which a startup (or any other organisation) can protect its intellectual property (i.e., the idea or concept/ product/ process/ associated symbols, logos etc. that define the brand), namely, through:

1) Patents
2) Trademarks
3) Copyrights

Intellectual property is, in fact, an asset for its owner and has a commercial value attached to it.

Payal Chawla, Founder, Juscontractus says, "Protecting IP requires thought and strategy. A novel technological innovation, like Tetrapak, would be worth protecting through a patent, which can be very expensive. In certain situations, it may be possible to seek a trademark protection or simply protect through a trade secret. This can be done through investing in marketing, and creating a recall between the owner and the product. The point is - there are different strategies available for different goals. Intellectual property can be very valuable. It is not unknown for a brand to be three times the turnover of a company. IP, if correctly and strategically protected, can take the valuation of a company to a completely different level."

Also remember, if someone else happens to do so before you, then you are likely to be pushed out of the game (even if you had started working on the idea first), lest you are found guilty of patent infringement or copyright violation.

Companies can even leverage these patents as a means to further boost their revenues through licensing. For instance, Ford and Toyota have both bought licenses from Paice LLC to use its patent covering hybrid cars.

In summary

While startups are constrained by a paucity of funds when it comes to protecting intellectual property, what is important is that they should still continuously work on identifying IP and at the same time consciously work on setting aside funds to protect IP.

Since international patents may prove to be expensive at this stage, a good start would be to apply for a domestic patent/trademark/copyright. As the company scales up, it can set aside a budget for patent/trademark/copyright in the international market. Failure to do so can affect the company's prospects to scale up.

It's not just at the startup stage that IP is important. Businesses are constantly reinventing and redefining themselves in today's day and age, where change is the only constant. This means greater focus on innovations, which in turn, means a greater need to protect IP.

The importance of IP cannot, (and should not) be undermined by startups, and established companies alike, because of the long-term sustainable advantages it offers.

Vikram Upadhyaya

Chief Mentor & Accelerator Evangelist, GHV Accelerator

Vikram is also the Founding Board Member of the Indian Angel Network Incubator and an advisor to projects being undertaken through the Telecom Centres of Excellence (TCOE).

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