Case Studies

Ceres Power: Commercialising innovation through a strong patent strategy

Ceres Power is a world leading AIM-quoted alternative energy company based in the UK, developing fuel cell technology for use by original equipment manufacturers and partners organisations committed to developing combined heat and power products and other distributed energy generation applications. The company is committed to provide alternative energy solutions to address the global challenges of reducing emissions, increasing fuel efficiency and improving energy security.

Brian Steele, Professor at Imperial College London, has worked on fuel cell technology throughout his career. He came up with the idea of using a ceramic, Ceryiagadalin Oxide, electrolyte in a fuel cell to allow energy to be generated at lower temperatures and without using hydrogen or precious metals.

Intellectual Property Protection

After coming up with his electrolyte, Steele filed a patent setting out a complete system for injecting the fuel and air, extracting the power and managing the heat exchange. His next step was to call in three colleagues from Imperial College Business School, including Bruce Girvan who is now direction of innovation at Ceres Power, to prepare a business plan.

They quickly realised that they would need a lot of investment to launch the fuel cell and properly safeguarded Intellectual Property would be essential if they were to secure it. The patent was transferred from ImperialCollege to a new company, Ceres, and a prospectus launched for £4.25 million in funding. Girvan says “The goal was to turn our innovation into a tangible output. Yes, we could have licensed our IP, but manufacturing know-how gives your firm more value.”

“When dealing with other firms, we always ringfence our IP very clearly,” says Girvan. “In a drawing of a boiler on the wall, you can draw a line and say whether or not we own a part. Before we start discussions, we always have our current IP strategy and a technology road map. We avoid joint ownership at all costs.”

Ceres and their suppliers also operate under non-disclosure agreements. “As a partner, you might want to get cracking,” says Girvan, “but we always prefer to have a hard, upfront discussion about IP before we start work together.”

The results 

So far, Ceres has built up a portfolio of 40 patents, as well as trade marks on its name in all the world’s key markets. Early on, Girvan was keen to put its IP on the balance sheet. Now, he exercises timing skills when an innovation is about to become commercial.

Because the Ceres technology has yet to be launched and because software patents can be hard to protect, at present it is protected under trade secrets law. Copying so far has been limited. “In our market, you are either a big supplier or a research institute. Relatively few companies are developing materials and systems,” says Girvan.

“Because we wanted to be a global plc from the start, we see ourselves having lots of operating companies in all these different markets,’ says Girvan. ‘So we have set up our IP as one separate entity with specific assets. We want to make sure any decisions are taken centrally across the whole group.”

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