The growing value of green ideas

As the economic and social value of green technology rises, efforts to protect the intellectual property of these innovations are increasing

Evidence of green technology shifting from an alternative investment to a mainstay of the economy is all around us. Around 40% of UK homes and businesses had a smart meter installed by the end of September 2020; on Boxing Day 2020, wind turbines provided the majority (50.7 per cent) of the nation’s electricity. 

“Companies exposed to the energy transition are likely to deliver unprecedented growth over the coming decades,” Goldman Sachs analysts told investors at the start of January. 

However, it seems creators of emerging low-carbon technologies hoping to take a slice of this growth are often unaware of the protection intellectual property (IP) rights can afford them. The International Energy Agency reports that “while the initial value of many energy technology startups lies in the patents they hold, fewer patents have been filed for low-carbon energy technologies each year since 2011”. 

This means green tech developers could be losing out on opportunities to attract investment, protect, license and sell their work. 

Europe’s green IP goals

The European Commission wants to change this. In November, it released its Action Plan on IP, upgrading its IP offer for European Union businesses hoping to capitalise on their low-carbon ideas. 

According to the Commission, the goal is to boost green IP uptake, especially in the field of publicly funded research, with 35 per cent of the EU’s Horizon research and development (R&D) budget now set aside for green projects. For the clean technology developed through the programme, the Commission will support matchmaking opportunities with investors to commercialise it. 

But what about green IP development in the UK? One thing seems clear: post-Brexit, there will be more paperwork. Mark Marfé and Anna Harley, who specialise in patent litigation and IP issues at law firm Pinsent Masons, say Brexit does present a challenge in respect of IP rights.

“For example, new trademarks or designs are no longer reciprocal. Both UK and EU applications will now be required, rather than a single application applicable across Europe. Conversely, the patent system was largely unaffected by Brexit,” they point out.

The UK’s competing green tech ambition

But Marfé and Harley believe the UK is well aware of the valuable nature of homegrown IP and is taking it as seriously as its Continental counterparts. “The government is clearly prioritising both artificial intelligence (AI) and clean technologies, so we anticipate substantial growth and investment. The private sector, research institutions and the public sector are all focusing on clean technology, which includes the development of green IP as a consequence,” they say.

Private capital is often vital for a green startup to move towards commercial viability with its IP. Green Angel Syndicate’s portfolio, dedicated to angel investments in companies whose products or services help mitigate climate change, includes Power Roll, maker of a flexible, recyclable solar film said to be 20 times cheaper than traditional solar panels, and Smile Plastics, which uses waste plastic to manufacture products for the design and architecture industries. 

Chief executive Nick Lyth says the driving force behind forming Green Angel Syndicate in 2013 was “the quality and quantity of energy, water, transport and recycling technology and process innovation emerging from transnational research and applied research projects supported by the EU”. 

Post-Brexit, this support has now splintered from the UK. “British R&D has become isolated from both European funding and the even more essential partnerships throughout leading research establishments across Europe,” he says. 

While the UK is rich in its own research institutions and private capital, “high-quality, rapid grassroots innovation in the fight against climate change has become that little bit harder in the UK”, says Lyth. “Europe’s Action Plan on IP is supported by millions of euros in incentives, from which UK research establishments are excluded. It is a shame for them, but more importantly a failure of communal action against a communal problem.”

To hoard green IP or share?

The question of whether a more collaborative approach to commercialising green technology is needed is a pressing one. Is it fair to keep inventions that could dramatically improve living conditions under the lock and key of IP? What if a protected product, shared internationally, could dramatically curb carbon emissions? Should an AI algorithm that cuts utility bills, thereby alleviating energy poverty, be made accessible to all? 

Marfé and Harley say the pandemic is creating a shift in perspective on the social role and purpose of IP. They point to the creation of the Open COVID Pledge, a commitment made by IP owners to share some or all of their IP for the purposes of ending and mitigating COVID-19. This spirit of shared purpose can be applied to another global health crisis, climate change. 

“Over the last year we saw universities and businesses recognising that their research and expertise are critical to the efforts of overcoming the global pandemic. This sort of collaboration is equally applicable to climate change, global carbon reduction and sustainability-enhancing technologies,” they say. 

It is far more important for companies and governments throughout the world to act rapidly to slow, and ultimately reverse, greenhouse gas pollution.

Lyth agrees and suggests IP isn’t really what is holding back green technology creators from achieving their full potential. He says green innovation “is not constrained by IP policy, but by the slowness with which governments around the world are tackling climate change”.

“The atmosphere surrounds us all, regardless of where borders and IP treaties are drawn on a map. It is far more important for companies and governments throughout the entire world to act rapidly to slow, and ultimately reverse, greenhouse gas pollution,” he concludes.