The IP opportunity

Knowledge - sAccording to Jim Baisillie, the ex-Chair and CEO of RIM (the company behind Blackberry phones) “Innovation without IP [protection] is philanthropy”. It’s a statement that has profound relevance for UK charities, but I’ll come to that in a second.

Baisillie is no stranger to these three concepts:  he’s Chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators, he’s fought some of technology’s biggest Intellectual Property (IP) battles, and has made personal philanthropic donations in excess of $100m in recent years. His statement was made in the frustration that his native Canadians have great ideas, but they’re never the ones that profit from them; the main reason, he argues, being that Canada fundamentally lacks a coherent strategy and framework for IP development and protection.

Exactly the same could be said of most UK charities. I’ll explain.

Last year I worked with three different charities who were looking to increase their commercial income. The growth potential they identified through the process ranged between about 5% and 25%, the majority of which was based on commercialising their knowledge assets in some way, shape or form.

The point is this: plenty of charities have a huge store of valuable knowledge – things that work, things that don’t; practices and processes for organising and delivering services, and creating particular outcomes. The history of the sector is one of continual, mostly low-level and localised, innovation. What’s less apparent in that history is a strong track record of identifying, refining and taking those innovations to scale; and what’s almost entirely absent is their making serious money from it. There are three main reasons for that: most charities don’t see that vast pool of intellectual knowledge as their property, they don’t take the time to turn it into IP and secure it, and they don’t realise the potential value it could bring them if they did.

There are two stages to solving this: first, capturing that knowledge and documenting it – as best practice to spread internally, and potentially to share with or sell to others. And second, to secure and commercialise that IP, if that’s what you choose to do. Neither of these is all that complicated, but together they could deliver significant income growth.

Regarding the first stage, I never cease to be amazed by the depth of subject matter expertise I find when starting work with a new client. In many cases, their operations are a treasure trove of innovative ideas and commercial opportunities just waiting to be developed. The problem is, that nobody is looking for them, and the people that know about them are rarely prompted to raise their hands. Who is looking through your operation on a regular basis, seeking out over-performance, and trying to decode the formula to use it elsewhere? And who is looking over their shoulder at those innovative practices, and asking the question: “Could we document that, package it and turn it into IP?”

But even when we do package that knowledge up, we seem to have a moral quandary about protecting it. I know at least three major charities, one of which is currently in administration, who’ve developed great training programmes in the past, only to find their contact trainers and the people they’ve trained, setting up their own training businesses, using the exact same materials from the courses they’ve attended. The reasons I’ve heard have ranged from ‘not knowing we could’, to ‘serving the greater good’. And the latter is fine, if that’s your choice – Linus Torvalds gifted Linux to the world, just as Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web – perhaps the single most impactful act of philanthropy in history. But you’d better believe they did it consciously, and it certainly wasn’t the person putting the courses together that made the decision.

Your organisation’s knowledge is probably the biggest lever you have for increasing income and impact, but all too often it’s an invisible and untapped asset, because most of us are like Canada – we lack a coherent strategy for developing, scaling and commercialising IP. How could your organisation create more value from its unique store of knowledge?

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