Patents: a first-hand account

  • Crossbreed Foldable Wheel

Duncan Fitzsimons graduated from Industrial Design Engineering in 2007 and moved straight into developing one of his final year projects, the Crossbreed Foldable Wheel, for commercialisation with InnovationRCA's Selected Works programme. Here is a brief account of how the reality of getting a great idea into the public domain unfolded.

At college, I had originally designed the wheel as a challenge to the folding bike market, to show that a bike could have all the benefits that larger wheels offer and still fold away into a small package for storage and transport. At that early stage, all I really had was proof that the idea could work and some aesthetic model mock-ups to try and sell the product possibilities. It still needed a lot of work before I would have a product I could try and sell. I did not know yet how many different ways it might be used, or what market I might benefit from most if I designed different product variations from the same core concept. In this situation, a patent was perfect for protecting the Intellectual Property (commonly known as IP) involved in how the wheel worked, and allowed me to continue developing the design without fear of being copied.

Public Disclosure

Before the patent was filed, it was really important that I did not disclose the idea publicly. This meant no public exhibitions, no mention of it on the internet and no mention to anyone outside the RCA without signing a non-disclosure agreement. Coming up to graduation, lots of people were unsure what to do about protecting their ideas. Exhibiting your work in the graduation show is a public disclosure, so if you want to protect your idea, you must file your patent application before the opening. This means making enquiries about patent attorneys and IP protection at least two months before the show. It is possible to file one more quickly, but you will have to pay for a lot of legal help and it will be incredibly expensive.

Patent Applications

A patent application is essentially an incredibly distilled and legally watertight description of what your design does and how it works. It is relatively quick to do with a patent attorney, the help of whom you will almost certainly require at some stage in the filing process. It is worth noting that patent attorneys cost a lot more than the patent process itself. But if you want to have a go at your own application, be warned that it may take some time and effort to write (weeks or months), and you should really get it checked by an expert before submitting. Resources such as InnovationRCA and the Business & IP Centre at the British Library can help with this.

The patent I obtained has helped a huge amount by allowing me to promote the design while it is still in development. It has allowed me to discuss the project with interested commercial parties and to exhibit it publicly around the world. I originally intended the wheel to be used as part of a new type of folding bicycle. However, the protection offered by the patent gave me time to properly explore the bicycle market and other applications before committing to a design for a certain application.

As it turns out, the foldable wheel has an even better application with much more widespread appeal: as a wheelchair wheel. After additional funding and interest from some major manufacturers in this market, the first foldable wheelchair wheels is ready for user testing.

A final note on patents

Many designs either do not need patenting or cannot be patented because they are a bit too close to existing or previously disclosed (ie. made public) IP. You can search for existing and past patents online with espacenet. Have a look at the language used to describe the ideas in existing patents to help with the way you search. For example, in patent-speak, an angle poise lamp may well be described as a 'Device or armature for suspending electrical devices at the correct height'. Much of the art of patent searching is finding all the different ways you can describe your design.

Some designs may be automatically protected by copyright or can be registered as Registered Designs. Many products coming out of college are often almost ready to go, and in this case the quickest, cheapest way to make money from your idea might be to just get out there and do it first.

The best advice I can give about idea and design protection is to ask around and find a graduate who is out there and making money with a similar sort of product or in a similar market. They will nearly always be happy to meet and discuss their experiences, and that way you can learn how they made a success of their design and how this compares to what you want to do. Nearly every product and every market needs a different approach. Sometimes IP protection may be a complete waste of time and money, and at other times, absolutely essential to success.

Duncan Fitzsimons is the James Dyson Innovation Fellow (2010) at the Royal College of Art. For more information on him and his work, see www.duncfitz.co.uk