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.

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