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Intellectual property can be quite a crucial business tool, but not everyone thinks hard enough about protecting their big ideas. In 2001, plumber Brad McCarthy got stuck on a remote beach in Cape York in north Queensland and spent about six hours getting his car out with a hand winch. He knew there has to be an improved way. In response, he invented Invention Idea, a lightweight vehicle-recovery device for bogged off-roaders.

After designing the super-tough nylon product, he attended a Queensland Government business seminar, in which the advisers stressed getting patent protection before his idea was publicised. “One of the first things we did was talk with a patent attorney to find out how you could protect the idea,” says McCarthy, who launched Maxtrax in 2005. It really is now sold in about 30 countries worldwide. McCarthy has patents in key markets including Australia, Europe as well as the US, and also the business also has a trademark on the distinctive original “safety orange” hue it uses for its moulded product. Unlike McCarthy, however, many inventors and businesses with recommended cruel their chances of success from day one.

Their big mistake? Ignoring patents or some other intellectual property protection before they spruik their idea to investors, people as well as friends. It can be a costly error. Bradley Postma, principal at patent and trademark attorney firm Cullens, says small, and medium enterprises (SMEs), particularly, often neglect safeguarding their IP or think it will probably be too costly. “The vast majority of protectable IP goes unprotected,” he says.

Europe could be a particular trap for exporters because, unlike various other major markets, it does not have a grace period making it possible for public disclosure of an invention without affecting the validity of any subsequent patent application. That opens the way to have an idea or product to be copied. “In Australia and america you can do something about this, provided you’re in a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too late,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves in the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and anybody can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that business owners often think their idea is too easy to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and uncomplicated, it will likely be copied and you should get advice.”

Unitary patents on way – Margot Fröhlinger is principal director of unitary patent, European and international legal affairs on the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO), which oversees about 160,000 patent applications a year. She recently completed a road trip warning Australian businesses that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies must innovate – and protect their inventions. “You need the protection of the IP and, specifically, patent protection to get a good return on your investment,” she says.

Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe because of Inventhelp Successful Inventions processes across multiple jurisdictions that will result in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a brand new unitary patent system that promises to be a game changer. This will make it easy to get protection in as much as 26 participating European Union member states using the submission of any single request for the EPO.

A November 2017 EPO study, Patents, Trade and FDI in the European Union, suggests better harmonisation of Europe’s patent system has the potential to increase trade and foreign direct investment in high-tech sectors, delivering annual gains of €14.6 billion ($A22.8 billion) in trade and €1.8 billion (A$2.81 billion) in foreign direct investment.

Fröhlinger believes Australian businesses across all sectors have possibilities to expand in to the European market, which boasts a lot more than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and strong consumer demand. “It’s very important for Australian businesses to understand that there is a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking only about patents,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s extremely important to have an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. If they don’t have (IP) individuals-house they ought to make an effort to get strategic business advice.”

The value of intangible assets – This call to action for Australian businesses may come as the Global Innovation Index 2017 reports on countries’ IP receipts as a percentage of total trade. Basically, the measure indicates the way a country has been doing on the IP front. While Australia scores well with regards to inputs into research and development, the US (5.1 per cent), Japan (4.7 percent) and Finland (2.9 per cent) easily outperform Australia (.3 per cent) on IP royalties.

Your message? Typically, Australian companies are not great at converting research into value and treat IP nearly as an administrative function. The exceptions are health tech leaders, including medical device company Cochlear and sleep-disorder business ResMed, which understand the value of intangible assets such as logo and data use, and make rtaotl businesses around it.

In a knowledge-based economy, Inventhelp Intromark has become a crucial business tool and governing it is no longer just a matter of organising trademarks and patents. Intangible assets are rapidly more and more important than tangible assets and require appropriate consideration.

An overview of Australia’s top listed companies, released by Glasshouse Advisory in September 2017, endorses this kind of sentiment. It reveals that 38 per cent in the companies’ value (regarding a$550 billion) is not included on their balance sheets; this means that that investors are operating without insights into a significant proportion from the corporate asset base.