SME Spotlight

Sparking innovation via intellectual property: Innosparks product manager Jerome Lee

Mr Lee with Innosparks' Air+ Smart Mask, boasting the world's first microventilator, which vents out trapped heat, moisture and carbon dioxide from the mask. The company has filed for several patents, registered designs and trademarks while developin
Mr Lee with Innosparks' Air+ Smart Mask, boasting the world's first microventilator, which vents out trapped heat, moisture and carbon dioxide from the mask. The company has filed for several patents, registered designs and trademarks while developing the mask, helping to differentiate its product in the market.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Innosparks, an engineering product development and innovation company set up in 2014, uses engineering to create new products to improve everyday lives. One such product is the Air+ Smart Mask, which contains a microventilator with a mini fan to keep the user cool. The ST Engineering unit won the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos) Award for Design Innovation this year, which was announced on Aug 23 by Ipos at the annual IP Week @ SG 2016. In the third of a four-part series about local firms using intellectual property to be more innovative, Rachael Boon speaks to Innosparks product manager Jerome Lee to find out how the firm uses intellectual property to its advantage.

Q How was Innosparks born?

A It all began in 2013, when Temasek Holdings approached ST Engineering during the severe haze season, the first time in more than 10 years that the Pollutant Standards Index had been higher than 400.

We were tasked to look at protective mask solutions for children and the vulnerable. We identified the current gaps such as discomfort in wearing masks and that there was no mask that fits children.

After a year of development, we invented the microventilator and also did 3D-scanning of more than 850 children and adults, to capture the facial dimensions and geometrics of each age group.

That led us to design three mask sizes to fit 98 per cent of Asian facial profiles.

We continue to develop commercial products with positive impact on our everyday lives, such as the Airbitat Smart Cooler.

Innosparks is an expansion of ST Engineering to the commercial space. When we started with Air+ Smart Mask, there were just three employees. Now, we have more than 15. In the first year of sales, we sold more than a million masks.

Q Why is intellectual property important to the business?

A Having good intellectual property differentiates our product in the market, and gives us a competitive edge. It also prevents competitors from copying our unique features, especially in global markets.

The Air+Smart Mask illustrates this point perfectly, as it has the world's first microventilator, which vents out trapped heat, moisture and carbon dioxide from the mask.

We introduced disruptive innovation in a conventional industry with established players, which also allows us to establish a foothold against copycats.

Having a good intellectual property portfolio also gives us an opportunity to license our cutting-edge technology, increasing our revenue stream.

Q How does the firm identify what features it should protect?

A After doing market research, we realised the microventilator was a unique function.

As we were fine-tuning the product, we also developed the mask valve's intellectual property.

It's a natural part of our product development as we build and explore prototypes with unique functions and features.

Our masks come in three sizes, and we thought of a unique way for consumers to find out their size via an integrated sizing ruler that appears on the packaging. We found this was a unique feature and applied for a patent for that.

This is the process of one patent leading to another, and helps build a ringfence of intellectual property protection around our products.

Other than patents, we've also filed registered designs and trademarks.

We've also extended intellectual property protection to cover future variants of our microventilator.

Q Why should firms take note of intellectual property protection?

A When they apply, they should consider what happens downstream, and what is their strategy against copycats or potential litigation moves.

In intellectual property, there's no such thing as a global patent. Filing for protection is also costly. Besides paying for the initial filing, you have to pay a maintenance fee over a period of up to 20 years.

It's important for the company to decide where they want to establish their main markets, so it makes a good business case to file for intellectual property in those.

Our key focuses are: mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and the United States.

It minimises the impact of others copying our product. In China, for instance, there is also a growing awareness of original products. China is also the country with the biggest number of patent filings per year, which shows the Chinese are placing more attention on intellectual property.

It's not the only way to protect your product, as pricing and your marketing strategy play a part too.

Q Describe the process of applying for intellectual property protection.

A It starts as early as when we first have a concept. Our inventors and patent agents comb through intellectual databases, and perform market research.

Once we discover that we've developed a novel design, feature and invention, we draft the specifications and drawings and file for the patent or registered design or trademark.

We typically start with a US provisional patent, which allows us to secure an earlier priority date and lead time to refine our invention. We follow up with formal patent filing within one year. This is one of the strategies we adopted because as we do research and development, the invention and the concept may have slight changes.

For patent applications, the whole process takes about three to six years - it depends on which countries you're filing in as well. When the patent is approved, the protection backdates to the priority date.

For registering designs, the process takes about one to two years.

The cost is about $20,000 to $30,000 per invention per country, when you're working with a patent agent in Singapore.

Q Would your company be able to do without intellectual property protection?

A For instance, if a particular product is very complicated, and it is almost impossible to reverse engineer, owners or inventors could decide not to file patents, but to keep it as a trade secret.

It really depends on the product. The company needs to understand their intellectual property strategy, and how it intends to commercialise or protect the products.

For instance, there are companies that do well selling everyday products such as pins and needles. They do not need intellectual property protection, because they sell at volume and low cost.

Intellectual property is important to Innosparks because we want to design and develop products that have unique features.

On the other hand, the patent requires a full disclosure of the invention.

Take 3D printing. The protection for 3D printing started in the 1980s, and it expired in the mid-2000s. That's why more companies hopped on to develop 3D printing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Sparking innovation via intellectual property '. Print Edition | Subscribe