Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reem Al Marzouqi - an Emirati inventor

Jane Lambert

I an grateful to Mr Mohamed Al Hemairy, Head of Intellectual Property & Patent Commercialization at the United Arab Emirates University, for bringing Aamera Jiwaji's article Patent Experience 23 Dec 2014 BQ to my attention.  It is about a young woman called Reem Al Marzouqi who has invented means of driving a car without hands. 

According to the article:
"More than a year has passed since a shy Emirati student and her two colleagues of UAE University made international headlines for inventing a system that allows a disabled person to drive a vehicle using only their feet. But little has happened in the last three years, despite her university’s best efforts to facilitate the process, spotlighting whether the GCC is truly ready to become a regional hub for innovation and intellectual property matters."
The University saw the potential of Reem's invention and allocated two mechanical engineering students and their supervisor to assist her. Applications have been filed for patents in the USA, European Patent Office, China and Japan though apparently not the Gulf Co-operation Council Parent Office.

Those patent applications must have cost a lot of money and their maintenance and enforcement will cost a great deal more. The work that has been carried out by the mechanical engineering students and supervisor will also have come at a cost though they will all have gained valuable product development experience. Unless and until a manufacturer or user applies for a licence to work Reem's invention there is a risk that this investment will not be recovered.

Yet even if that happens it is no reason to doubt the GCC states' capacity to become "a regional hub for innovation and intellectual property matters." The fact that Reem came up with the idea in the first place indicates that there are talented young men and women in the region. The University's willingness to invest in the invention is also to the region's credit. Reem's experience is one that has been shared by countless private inventors throughout the world including the UK and USA. I can say that from bitter experience because I have set up and chaired inventors clubs in Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, run IP clinics throughout the UK and spent most of my career advising and representing start-ups and other small and medium enterprises.

Reem's problem is that she is an independent inventor and not a member of a major vehicle manufacturer or other big institution's research and development department. If you look at page 9 of the UK Intellectual Property Office's publication Facts and Figures you will notice names like IBM, HP, Schlumberger and Rolls Royce in the table of top 10 patentees. The patent system in most countries (if not every country of the world) is designed to assist big businesses. It is very tough indeed for anyone else to get a look in. The remark attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door" is simply not true. And to be fair to Emerson what he actually said was:
"If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."
Having said that it was not necessary a bad thing to apply for a patent or other intellectual property right for a useful invention like Reem's but applying for a patent for an invention and then licensing it is putting the cart before the horse.

Intellectual property exists to protect investment in branding, design, technology and works of art and literature but does not necessarily stimulate it. What stimulates such investment is the promise of a return through the use or sale of an invention, the publication of a blockbuster novel and so on.  When I am asked to advise a new business on patenting or other IP protection I take the entrepreneur through the following exercise:

  • Identify the revenue streams for your business over the period of your business plan;
  • Consider the threats to each of those revenue streams;
  • What counter-measures can you take to avert those threats.
In most cases the threats are commercial - a competing product, a technical advance or changing consumer spending - and in most instances so are the countermeasure - reducing your prices, developing new products or services or finding new markets. Only very rarely is obtaining legal protection (that is to say a patent or other intellectual property right) the main answer. Even then a patent may not be the best answer because there are other forms of legal protection for new products and services such as the law of confidence which protects trade secrets or in the UK unregistered design right. Such alternatives are often unregistered rights and therefore free.

So what should Reem do now that she or her University has spent a lot of money on developing and patenting her invention? The obvious thing is to find a market and that is most likely to be found in a highly developed country with its own motor manufacturing industry with high welfare spending for disabled persons. I have no idea whether there is a market here but I do know that there is a scheme to adapt motor vehicles for disabled persons called Motability in the UK. There are probably bigger and better schemes in other countries. If I were Reem I would be exploring all those possibilities and perhaps also talking to the motor manufacturers.

Perhaps Reem, Mr Al Hemairy or someone else at the UAEU has thought of all that and done all these things. If so, excuse my impertinence. But if not, it's an idea isn't it and this article may help other inventors  in the GCC. If any of those inventors or entrepreneurs wants to discuss this article he or she can call me on +44 20 7404 5252 during office hours (remembering that we have 3 public holidays between now and 2 Jan 2015) or send me a message through my contact form

I should like to wish Reem, her helpers and university all the best and urge them not to be discouraged. There's plenty of scope for enterprise and innovation in the GCC states. The rest of the world owes a great debt of gratitude to the Arab world for the work of its scholars and scientists in the past. The fact that we use 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 rather than I, II, III, IV and V for counting is a constant reminder of that debt. There is no reason why the GCC - indeed the whole Middle East North Africa region - could not be a great source of ideas and technology again.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

GCC-British Economic Forum

Landmark Hotel, London
Photo Wikipedia

Last Thursday I attended several of the sessions of the GCC-British Economic Forum organized by the Arab British Chamber of Commerce at the Landmark Hotel. The Forum was opened by Prince Andrew and there were keynote speeches from Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council ("GCC") and Prince Saud Bin Khalid Al-Faisal, Deputy Governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). For the rest of the day there were discussions on energy, investment in infrastructure, financial services and tax.

I found the first session on sustainable energy was the most interesting. For the last 100 years the world has looked to the Gulf for petroleum products but the oil stocks will not last for ever. One of the businesses planning for when the oil runs out is QSTec (Qatar Solar Technologies). QSTec, which is part of the Qatar Foundation,
"aims to be a fully integrated solar energy company that operates across the solar value chain. Starting with the production of high quality polysilicon, QSTec will expand along the value chain into ingots, wafers, cells modules and applications. Its high quality solar products and services will be used locally and exported globally to meet the growing needs of the global solar industry."
The company was one of the sponsors of the Forum and Dr. Khalid K. Al-Hajri, its chair and CEO spoke at the dinner. Every guest received a goody bag from QSTec consisting of a solar powered battery charger and a bound notebook.

QSTec is developing new solar technologies in Doha in collaboration with the universities that are clustered in Education City and the businesses in Qatar Science and Technology Park. The company is already exporting its products around the world In time, it will no doubt build up an impressive portfolio of licensable technologies. Intellectual property will be crucial to businesses like QCTec not just in Qatar but also in the rest of the Gulf, yet it was barely touched upon in any of the discussions.

The good thing about the Forum was that discussion focussed on Arab investment in the UK as well as British investment in the GCC but the emphasis on energy, infrastructure, banking and tax seemed backward looking rather than forward thinking. Education City is not the only centre for research and development in the region. Saudi Arabia has the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (see my article "Saudi Arabia: King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology" 6 Sept 2014), Dubai has its Knowledge Village and so on. We in the UK and indeed the rest of the world will want to use and develop this technology. This should certainly be a topic for any future Forum.

Another topic upon which I had expected more discussion was the political and legal infrastructure. The only time it came up was when one of the speakers remarked that investment was happened by political and legal uncertainty. In the Q & A I pointed out that Dubai and Qatar had both established English speaking common law courts in their financial districts in order to give foreigners sufficient confidence to use the local financial services industries and that there was no reason why investors in other industries could not opt for QFC or DIFC law and submit to the jurisdiction of those courts in their contracts. It should not have been left to a speaker from the floor to bring these important institutions to the Forum's notice.

Overall it was an interesting day and I met a lot of interesting people from the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East North Africa region. I hope that there will be another Forum but that it will be more forward thinking next time. Should anyone wish to discuss this article or business with the GCC generally he or she should call me on +44 20 74 04 52 52 or use my contact form.