“How to ensure your ideas are protected and marketable” - Dr Geoff Whiteley.
Leeds Inventors Group 19-11-08
Geoff described how “Strulch”, the environmentally-friendly garden mulch on which his business is based, came out of research he was involved with in his post in the Biological Sciences department at Leeds University. A lot of companies were looking for alternatives to peat compost and the university had a number of projects looking into this – funded by industry.
For the university, such projects were a learning process. They began to realise that very often the outcome was a pat on the back but no money so it was decided that in future a better way would be to licence any useful technology to the companies involved.
At this time the university were looking at alternative uses for straw. Straw-burning had been banned because of the impact on the environment, so the university looked into how straw reacts in soil.
The result was a garden mulch made from straw with minerals added to slow its decomposition. As well as being good for the environment it controls weeds and deters garden pests. Patents were filed by the university but after a few years the university decided not to fund the project further. Geoff decided to take the big step of taking the project on himself – along with the significant costs of international patents. Costs of around £25,000 were due at this point.
Because of the research which had been done on it and the advantage of it being good for the environment he was able to get funding from NESTA. This enabled the commission of a processing plant. The product was tested out at the Eden Project, the Earth Centre, the Royal Horticultural Society and Helmsley Wall Garden with very positive feedback.
The next step was to try to get producers interested and he approached companies which he had previously dealt with through the university. The difficulty was that although it could be demonstrated that the product worked on a small scale they wanted to know if it would work on a large scale. And, of course, with an agricultural product this takes time.
Pre-licensing deals were signed with two companies, but as Geoff pointed out things can change quickly. Due to an increase in people composting their own waste and the fact that councils were collecting domestic waste and giving it to composting companies there was an increase in cheap and environmentally friendly compost. As a result the two interested companies backed out.
Geoff and his wife then set up their own business and negotiated with the university to licence the patents. They registered “Strulch” as a trade mark. Business Link then put them in touch with West Yorkshire Ventures. They were advised that in order to get significant funding they would need a business plan and a bigger team with a broader range of skills. In particular, the addition of someone experienced in marketing was a critical step. Funding from Yorkshire Forward and other organisations resulted in an investment of £30,000. They turned down offers from business angels as they didn’t want to give away 50% of the business.
It’s now ten years since the patent was filed. This year the company has paid off its business overdraft. The product has been selling for three years and they’re hoping to break even soon. It has been used on Gardeners World and Ground Force and its reputation is growing.
As Geoff pointed out, having a patent won’t convince manufacturers that the product will sell. They will want to know whether anyone has bought it and whether you can prove that it is better than what is already on the market. A big company, if interested, may well want to do their own trials. It’s a long process, and very often you can think that you’re getting somewhere when in fact you’re being led on by a large company before being dropped. If you can show that the product has sold you will be in a stronger position.
More than anything an inventor needs determination and a great deal of patience.
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