By Barry McDonald
The fast-evolving life sciences sector is already delivering the next generation of therapies and diagnostics, but as the sector gathers pace, so patent laws around the world struggle to keep up. As patents are so fundamental to many life science businesses, it is not surprising that companies in the sector are diverting resources to filing an increasing number of patent applications to protect their technologies.
At leading patent attorney firm Appleyard Lees, a constant eye is kept on developments in Europe and the rest of the world to ensure that the advice and patents being drafted are fit for both the domestic and all overseas markets.
With dedicated life sciences and pharmaceutical departments, Appleyard Lees – which has bases in Manchester, Leeds, at the BioHub at Alderley Park and also in Halifax – covers an array of technologies, with the added advantage of a team of attorneys who have undertaken laboratory research and who are keen to learn and become involved with new and innovative technologies.
The attorneys are collaborative by nature and provide the right mix to handle hybrid technologies such as bio-electric sensors, medical diagnostic devices and bioinformatics.
Having a team with hands-on experience is integral to the attorneyclient relationship, says Simon Bradbury, head of life sciences at Appleyard Lees. “We try to make sure the people we recruit have different but complementary technical backgrounds, so we can provide advice for the whole range of technologies for the sector. We have attorneys who are protecting a range of innovations, from medical devices all the way through to highly complex biologic therapies.”
Bobby Smithson, a partner in the firm, agrees that having attorneys with very specific technical know-how strengthens the relationship between attorney and client. “It gives us the ability to talk with inventors who are often in and out of the laboratory all day,” he says. “By talking on that level with them, we find that the inventors are a bit more at ease because we have a good feel for the technology right from the start.”
Appleyard Lees acts for a number of multinational corporations, well-known brands and universities, as well as for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and has earned a reputation for handling complex technical subject matter and providing clear and strategic advice on the best options to maximise return on investment. The company has just been shortlisted for UK patent prosecution firm of the year at the Managing Intellectual Property Global Awards.
But it is the firm’s approach to client care that sets it apart from the crowd, according to Mr Bradbury. “One thing we’re very keen on is getting to know the client and getting to know their business and their long-term commercial strategy,” he says.
“One of the ways we do that is to think and act more like their in-house counsel and really get to know what their long-term ambitions are, and sometimes it is not to grow into a large company but to exit, maybe a flotation or an asset sale so they can plough the money back into other areas of research.”
With regard to client care, “it is about putting the client first and it’s something lots of people say they do,” Mr Smithson adds. “We differentiate ourselves on the basis that client care can mean a number of things. For some, it is responding to an email within an hour. That’s all well and good, but in our view that’s just responding to an email with no thought.
“Client care in our mind is more about understanding a client’s business and putting what they want to achieve at the forefront and working with them to get to that. We want to feel like we’re part of every client’s business.” The result of that focus on client care is strong client retention along with the acquisition of new clients through personal recommendations.
In the business of innovation, patents are vital tools. No matter in which field of life sciences you operate, Appleyard Lees has a technical specialist who can work with you to understand your invention in the context of your business and provide advice on the best strategy to suit your needs – whether that involves keeping competitors at bay, securing investment or pursuing licensing income.
For Simon Bradbury, one of the biggest challenges facing the sector is that, with technology evolving very quickly, it takes a little longer for the law to evolve with it. “It’s always lagging,” he says, “and the challenges are how we make sure we protect potentially some very valuable inventions for our clients.
“We also produce a life sciences and pharmaceutical newsletter twice a year, a high-level summary of what’s going on in patent law for the sector around the world. That helps us, and our clients, to track what’s happening in patent law. I make sure the whole team gets involved in reading all the cases and writing articles.
“It’s very easy to focus on patent drafting and prosecution in the UK or Europe, but most of our clients operate globally and we can’t be that blinkered. We need to look at patents that will be suitable for a number of markets and jurisdictions, in particular the US. We have a number of very close links with highly regarded foreign attorneys and we visit them regularly and get a lot of updates.”
As well as providing first-class patent support, Appleyard Lees offers vital business development support through its growth fund. Launched in 2012, the fund is an annual pot of financial assistance to the tune of £50,000. Organisations with winning ideas and a proven track record of innovation, backed by sound strategic approach, will be eligible for financial support.
“The fund can provide assistance with some of the early stage patent costs for small start-up companies,” Mr Bradbury says. “It’s often very difficult for companies to get funding without having patents in place, so we will look to support financially the cost of patent findings.
“A number of clients have accessed this fund and have gone on to attract the right investment, and one has even now gone on to float on the AIM [Alternative Investment Market]. All that we ask in return is that the company agrees to us publicising their success story for our website and our marketing material.”