Interview: Rosa Wilkinson, innovation director at the UK IPO
Rosa Wilkinson joined the IPO in September last year after working with UK Trade and Investment and Lloyds Bank, where she served as director of public policy and regulation. She tells Emma Barraclough about her IP role
What does your job involve?
It embraces a range of functions: there's a shop window function overseeing the IPO's call centre; an outreach function overseeing that bit of the IPO that gets out there and meets people and helps businesses understand why they need to understand IP more than they think they do; a research function that looks after the IPO's Economics, Research and Evidence (ERE) team. Part of my job also looks at how we connect with wider government policy: for example, how we bolt on to government economic policy on engaging with SMEs and how we join up with competition issues.
In the past, the IPO didn't always do as much as it can to understand its customer base and we do more of that now. It's about making it easy for customers to access information easily; having a good website; making our processes good.
On the policy side, having a good understanding of what works really matters. Our ERE team helps us understand the value that IP adds and where things go wrong for companies. It used to be a small team but after the Hargreaves Reviewthere was a recognition that we needed to understand exactly what we are doing.
The ERE team has now grown to 10 people. I manage a programme of research activities that allows us to get to grips with how the IP framework is operating: How we can learn from what's happening overseas; how do we know that we're asking the right questions? The IPO has set up IP advisory groups in different practice areas and we work with them to ensure that our programme builds up an accurate picture of IP in the UK.
The team's work ranges from a comparative study of the effect of patent backlogs to collecting societies: how they operate and what effect codes of conduct have on them. We have also done work on the overall contribution of IP to the UK economy: how copyright rules impact levels of investment; whether people are better off if they have a patent.
We can then over time deliver an environment in the UK that's good for companies here and make it an attractive place for inward investment. We did seven or eight reports last year. It fuels thinking here but it also underpins thinking in the EU. Our research function is quite developed, so it has significant pull in Brussels.
Why have applications from UK companies fallen at the EPO?
One reason may be that companies are becoming more careful about where they file. In March applications at the IPO were up 1%. Search requests were up 5% and examination requests were also up.
Use of the PCT by UK companies has gone down 1%. I expect that is because companies are choosing to file in one specific place.
There's been a fairly significant fall in the backlog here. We've taken energetic action to tackle it. We wanted to do what we could to reduce it because it creates a period of uncertainty for firms.
At the front of my mind is what the IPO can do to reach out to SMEs - most of them don't know what IP is, including the risks and the potential of using their own or others'.
"For most companies just getting cash through the door is the most important thing. It’s a tough sell to get them to think differently."
Getting people to change their practices is very difficult. For most companies just getting cash through the door is the most important thing. It's a tough sell to get them to think differently.
So how are you doing that?
Hargreaves revealed that people don't want 30 points of contact for IP advice. There's a big gulf between no advice and expert advice. There's not enough in the middle. In part, the IPO goes out itself, buddying up with other parts of government to talk to businesses. But we can't reach everywhere.
I want us to make better use of other people's channels - helping other business advisory panels to up their IP offer. It's about infecting other people's channels. Finding out who businesses go to for advice and what they are saying. Over time we want to grow beyond government channels. Ultimately we want businesses to understand IP's opportunities and potential challenges. Then they can bring applications to us that are better formed. It is better for them they don't spend their legal budget getting basic advice about IP.
What can government do to help companies more?
A number of things. They may need help and advice to develop their ideas. They need good links to universities and pointers to access to finance. It's about helping to create networks.
The government has set up Catapult Centres, covering technologies ranging from satellites to future cities. It's about trying to provide dynamic hubs that can kickstart developments in a number of sectors. That allows companies to get the experience they need and also provides a hook into funding streams.
"Small businesses often don’t have IP assets on their balance sheets. If you don’t recognise them, you can’t access the finance"
Isn't the lack of finance the biggest issue for innovative companies? How can the government help?
At the moment, small businesses often don't have IP assets on their balance sheets. If you don't recognise them, you can't access the finance. And if it's not on your balance sheet, you might not think it's worth investing in. So I want us to educate, educate, educate, and help companies tap into what is going on - including local business networks so they can access advice on issues such as licensing.
Do you think that the UK has less of a culture of entrepreneurialism than some of its economic rivals?
There's lots of entrepreneurialism in the UK that goes unrecognised. We have lots of third-bedroom businesses, although their tax arrangements may not show it! Levels of enterprise are pretty good. What worries me is that the people starting businesses don't always know the threats and opportunities and how to prepare for them.
I can stand in a room of 30 start-ups and ask how many have a website and maybe 29 will put up their hands. Twenty of them may say they have prepared their own. But when I ask how many of them own the copyright for the photos on their sites then it's amazing what the facial expressions as well as the number of hands tells you. It's a litmus test.
"There’s lots of entrepreneurialism in the UK that goes unrecognised. We have lots of third-bedroom businesses, although their tax arrangements may not show it!"
When I was at the DTI I rolled out a manufacturing advisory service in 2001/2. We took experienced manufacturers and sent them to companies that had asked for help and they worked to review their own situation and prepare a report, including actions the company should take. They could then get more help from their own advisers. I can imagine this working in the IP world: looking at how IP features in a company's strategy.
That's one proposal. Will businesses welcome it? I want to know what level of demand there will be. It's rather a finger in the air at the moment.
You've talked a lot about SMEs. What about big companies?
There's lots going on with the trade mark directive - it's about getting the right legislative framework and the process right, such as putting more of our services online and dealing with applications more efficiently. We also want to help companies better enforce their IP rights so that it's not gumming up their legal teams. Now the UK has a fast track for small claims. Could we offer better mediation services?
Big companies care a lot about trading safely internationally so we can help shape legislation internationally. We have a new attaché in Beijingand the next one in India and there will be more in the coming months. We're looking at somewhere in south-east Asia.
We keep an eye on the effectiveness of what other people are doing. People often point to the US from an enterprise perspective but what's fascinating is that as soon as we put our document on helping SMEs on our website the USPTO called us to talk about it.
The starting point for me is that if we are serious about producing growth then the question is find out what works.
I want to see how much impact we're having on companies' bottom lines. I used to work in the Department of Trade and Industry and it had a really good management evaluation strategy. Six months after a company received help, we called them and asked what it meant to them. Most companies reported big additions to revenue. We could see the net benefit to the UK economy of each pound spent. I am hopeful that systems will be able to get us further down that line.
There are wider questions about even having a patent or a trade mark. The EAE team will be making sure that we have the data to answer those questions. Then it can be reflected in the national accounts the right way.
Tell us something people don't know about you
Although I'm a civil servant - if you cut through me you'll see civil service in my stick of rock - I grew up in the family business and I have worked in the private sector. I'm not your usual policy wonk.