After "After the Big Idea"

The idea of "After the Big Idea", a conference organised by the Materials and Design Exchange, was to "examine the process of successfully bringing a new product to market". The ten strong speakers painted a picture of the "opportunities and potential pitfalls that designers and innovators face" when taking a concept into the real world. As design students, we built up a mental portfolio of ideas, so the conference theme was super relevant to us now that we've graduated and are trying to create value.

We first heard from product designer Graham Brett of therefore design, whose talk was entitled "Been There - Done That". Therefore specialises in interface design for consumer electronics, and we saw some really clever ergonomic innovations in Graham's slideshow. He described how the studio has learned to make the most of their intellectual property - something they were practically giving away to their clients early on. They have evolved from being sub-contractors to being partners to developing their own businesses.

The next speaker was Brian Knott, materials specialist at MADE, who spoke of the importance of considering materials early on in the design process. He drove the point home with a chart showing how much funds get committed in the first 20% of the process. If something like a material spec. has to be changed after that, the project generally won't have enough free funds to afford the change. Because of the vast range of materials available (he suggests that there are 200 types of metal and 100 typres of plastic to begin with), it helps to use resources such as the Material Information Service, the Cambridge Materials Selector, or CAMPUS.

Next, we heard from Sian Brereton of the Technology Strategy Board. Her talk was called "Other Sources of Funding". She presented us with the schemes available on the public sector funding landscape. The Collaborative R+D scheme funds projects that fall under their set of themes, of which the Sustainable Materials and Products theme seems most relevant. It is looking for products that are easier to repair, reuse, or recycle. Other schemes that we might be eligible for are the Feasibility + Fastrack Projects, the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, and the Small Business Research Initiative. The sense I got was that the "funding landscape" is extremely complex, but full of suprises and definitely worth exploring.

Ed Matthews, also of MADE, apoke about a specific award - the SPARK award. It is awarded by MADE as part of their effort to bridge "the cultural and linguistic gap between the product design and materials science worlds." It grants £5,000 over about 24 to 36 months to projects with the potential to create significant future development. Rob Brown of Sprout talked about how the grant allowed him to produce innovative pointe shoes. The shoes are now on the market, and are made with new materials such as D3O to eliminate the serious physical strain of pointe dancing.

After lunch, the talk turned from how to find funding to how to protect your ideas. In the real world, protection should be an early priority, but it's a less inspiring subject. It is full of technical definitions, but we will inevitably need to begin thinking about things such as Copyright, Trademark, Design Rights, and Patents. Matthew Dixon of IP21 did his best to clarify the IP lanscape (click on the link for a video of a similar presentaiton). The different labels provide different levels of protection.

Copyright, for example, protects "original literary, dramatic, artistic and other works" but not "concepts or ideas." It arises automatically, but it's a good idea to keep records of creation date and author. Design Rights also arise automatically, but if registered, the protection lasts longer. It protects the appearance of a design which is "of new and of individual character." Patents are designed to protect technologies, both high and low. The application has to explain in technical detail how to carry out the invention, and if it is a UK patent, it must not have been made public before the application (whoops! degree show...you tube...press....websites). If granted, it can stop anyone else from using the invention commercially for 20 years.

Later in the question session, we were encouraged to hear that designers often sidestep the IP system entirely by just "being the one to get things out there." I suppose different methods might apply to different scenarios, and I've registered for expert advice at the upcoming (free) Innovation Clinic (Nov. 18th in the British Library, email events@ideas21.co.uk). Silas Brown of Briffa explained the Licensing process to us. If you know your IP rights, and what to expect from a licensing meeting, licensing is "the main way to extract value from your intellectual property."

We next heard about how the goverment supports innnovation with R+D tax relief for SMEs (Small to Medium Sized Enterprises). Not really being ready for that yet, nor for the world of trade and investment, I spent the rest of the afternoon plotting how to take over the world with gadgets.

Along with clarifying the IP and funding landscapes, the day left us all with an understanding of how to choose the right material for a product. Brian Knott asked us, "If designing a set of safety goggles, what property do you want it to have?" I guess that "strength" came of the minds of most of us. He pointed out that steel would be the best material to choose if you were going for strength. Steel safety goggles? No, Brian wisely enlightened us to the fact that transparency is really the most essential property. Just like with any plans, prioritising helps.

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