As the focus on science and innovation at COP26 has signalled, science and innovation play a crucial role in addressing the climate crisis by delivering the technologies needed to address the challenges we face: the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels, to integrate clean energy solutions into the way we live, to remove carbon from our atmosphere, to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures on our planet and to combat loss of habitat and biodiversity. Some of the technologies we need to help society make this shift are already fully mainstream and available, such as renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles, but these technologies are also developing and improving through innovation.
Our science and research communities in the UK are continually developing new solutions and refining and improving the technologies we already have. But these entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers need support and guidance to transform their innovations into impact to accelerate the journey to net zero carbon and a healthier planet. We consider below some of the ways that this can best be achieved.
Once a research idea is sufficiently developed for it to be brought to market, the innovations present in the technology need to be assessed and protected. University researchers have the benefit of involvement with University Technology Transfer Offices to assist with the registration of IP. Other organisations can obtain assistance from grants including Innovate UK funding as well as other local funding streams, charities, and other agencies. Engagement with IP advisors to assess the IP generated is a critical part of protection for innovation. Where potentially patentable inventions are being discussed with possible investors, putting in place effective and robust confidentiality agreements prior to making any disclosures is crucial.
Collaboration is also fundamental as it drives innovation with new ideas from different partners across different disciplines, which is vital for innovations to address net zero targets. Collaborating while also maintaining the confidentiality of innovations created and agreeing the commercialisation approach can be challenging with competing interests at play. Creative approaches to IP ownership and the use of narrow fields of exploitation can unlock the bottlenecks that can occur in these arrangements.
Licensing IP is a common thread for all approaches to exploitation. Innovators across the spectrum are likely to need to license their innovations to speed the time to turn these innovative ideas into real products and technologies. Licensing is a complex area and has many pitfalls. Innovators should value and carefully consider the licence terms and consider licensing by field of use to maximise the potential exploitation of their innovation.
Many universities, often alongside local partners, have established entrepreneurship hubs dedicated to supporting transdisciplinary innovation to tackle climate change, such as the Centre for Climate Change Innovation, (a partnership between Imperial College London and the Royal Institution), in London and others around the country, including Oxfordshire Greentech and the climate innovation platform (a partnership between University of Birmingham and the Energy Systems Catapult).
These hubs support and nurture innovators and entrepreneurs on the journey towards impactful products by brokering collaboration, providing guidance on IP, encouraging engagement with funders and mentors. They also provide essential early stage funding, accelerating the journey from initial concept to marketable product or technology. Speeding up the roll out of new technologies and innovations is essential in view of the urgency of the climate crisis.
Big corporates and financial institutions are contributing and participating with the hubs as partners, bringing funding and expertise to support disruptors and innovators as they progress their ideas.
Law firms also have a role to play in supporting innovation in the transition to net zero. We work with and advise innovative businesses presenting world-changing ideas across a range of technologies and sectors, as is evident in our recent work advising a client on a high value funding round to support the development of pioneering green energy technology. Our role in the transformation of innovation is to assist and guide with our experience in advising some of the largest new technology projects in the UK, university spin out companies and other innovators.
Current technologies are not sufficient to meet net zero targets and address the climate emergency. We are faced with the goal of transforming innovation into climate action under critical time pressure. It has never been more important for innovative companies, universities and their partners to nurture talent and understand how to support entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers in transforming their innovations to generate impact and provide a cleaner, greener future.
This article was co-authored by Susie Hilton Knox, Grace Lymer-Sullivan and Mary-Clare Palmer