We ask renowned innovator Professor John Marshall MBE, who has more than 30 patents to his name, for his thoughts on business plans and intellectual property, and why you should have the courage of your convictions
Regular business plans tend to be formulaic. With an innovative company, if the idea is a really good one, the proposal should be so novel that you have to create a totally new concept. Obviously there will be elements of the business plan that will be common to both pathways, but you need to educate people on the full commercial potential of the idea. You really need to highlight how it’s going to change the marketplace.
The most important element of innovation is IP and that’s a mixed blessing. What I tend to do in the UK is to notarise my laboratory or clinical work, so that I have a legal document that says I had that idea on that day, etc. The next step is to make a provisional patent application. But if you do that you disclose your IP, so competitors can see it and they have the chance to get round your patent. So while the traditional way to do it was the patent route, more and more people in Europe are going via confidential legally authorised documents before going to patent. In the US, it’s very different – chronological precedence is the absolute, so you have to be the first person to have filed the provisional patent application.
Innovation is always high-risk but it’s also potentially high-reward. If you look at the ROI for startups, it’s far higher than the annual revenue stream that you’re going to generate from a non-innovative idea. So when you’re talking to investors, you need to say, ‘This is new, it has huge potential – there are risks but the potential benefits could be enormous’.
More than 35 million procedures using Professor Marshall’s excimer laser for the correction of refractive disorders have now been performed worldwide
In terms of the competitiveness, any good innovator will have reviewed the marketplace and the competition. If you’re not already significantly ahead of your competitors in terms of technology, or you don’t have IP protection, then my advice is to get out. If you do have those things, then you’re pretty much fireproof. But it’s a question of attracting sufficient funds into the system to go through the early phase of start-up, which is the most dangerous phase. But I have to say – and this will probably shock a lot of people – I haven’t been involved in a single successful startup that had funding of less than US$5 million.
Business graduates tend to have a very fixed idea of what the model should be, but it absolutely has to change. It should be iterative – that is, you change the model as you take it through the development process.
If it’s a really good idea, it defines its own place in the market or generates a new one. For example, in the late 1970s and early ’80s when I had the concept of excimer laser refractive surgery, everybody laughed and said it was absolutely crazy to work on the centre of the cornea. However, within three months of presenting the early results, everybody in the field wanted to get in on it – and that created a multi-billion-dollar industry.
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