Intellectual Property and the Knowledge Economy

I work as a Senior Patent Attorney at a leading semiconductor design company.  Previously I worked as a Patent Attorney in a UK Patent and Trademark Attorney firm, and before this I spent some time working as a Railway Engineer.  I studied at the University of Oxford achieving a Masters in Engineering Science and am also delighted to have been named as an ‘inventor‘ myself on a patent application.  Patents are fascinating but this area of professional expertise is not well known so I’ll explain further.

Britain continues to grow into a knowledge economy where ideas are often developed and commercialised in the UK but manufactured abroad.  In order for businesses to protect their investments and products whilst maintaining their commercial edge; intellectual property (IP) rights are used.    From patents protecting new pharmaceutical drugs and electronics; trademarks and registered designs protecting new fashion ranges to trade secrets and confidential information protecting the latest Formula 1 cars.   IP is protecting innovation developed by companies in the UK every day.  Although all the types of intellectual property may be used to protect innovations in STEM areas, patents are often particularly valuable to companies.

The first patent laws were created in the sixteenth century to try to encourage inventors and businesses to share their knowledge and discoveries publicly.

Prior to governments issuing patents, most business knowledge was controlled by powerful Guilds and only available to their members.  This resulted in developments being constrained by the limited information available.  The hope was that the monopoly right patents provided, would encourage inventors to publish how to perform the invention.  This in turn would enable others to build on the information provided within the patent and result in furthering scientific progress.

The monopoly right provided by a patent lasts for up to 20 years and enables the patent owner to prevent others from working the invention and so recoup the investment costs required to devise the invention.  One method of doing this is to use the patent to protect the market in which the patent owner is selling goods by preventing competitors from doing the same thing.  A good example of a market where this is still a key use of patents is in pharmaceuticals where a company may use its patent to prevent any generic versions of a drug from being made available.

This approach is particularly suited to areas where any one product is only covered by one patent.  However, in some technical areas, for example telecommunications, there may be thousands of patents which could cover a single product.  In these areas competitors tend to implicitly accept that they all infringe each other’s patents and so have agreements not to sue one another or more explicitly agree to cross-licence each other’s portfolios.

The recent smart phone patent wars were caused by a new entrant to the telecommunications market disrupting these agreements.

They also showed businesses that their patent portfolios could be treated as tangible assets. This has led to a rise in so called Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) who buy patent portfolios from struggling or bankrupt companies and then assert them against companies who are manufacturing or selling products in the hope of extracting licence fees and royalties.

Whether it is to protect investment or develop new products and markets, Patents provide a vital tool to enable UK businesses to prosper, facilitating both the sharing and safeguarding of knowledge in a global economy.

Adeline-Fleur Smith
Senior Patent Attorney at ARM



Science at Cambridge: Stuff matters – understanding how materials behave

When I came to Cambridge I thought I’d end up in Physics, but I’m currently in my third year doing Materials Science! I’d barely even heard of materials science before I did Natural Sciences – the closest I’d come to it was the book Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, but it was interesting enough that I would choose materials science as one of my options in first year. Quite literally speaking, it made me notice the things around me, and I wanted to know more.

Essentially, materials science is about how different materials behave, both on a macroscopic level (like how beams bend) and on a microstructural level (like how metals are basically made up of tiny grains), and how these macroscopic properties emerge from different kinds of microstructure (which are also often different for different materials). Add in electrical properties, magnetic properties, manufacturing processes, the effect of temperature, corrosion, mechanical stresses and much more, and the result is an interdisciplinary subject that combines physics, chemistry and engineering to explain matter and use stuff well. There’s enough theory in materials science to keep the physicist in me relatively satisfied, and there’s enough practical applications that the everyday relevance more than makes up for any fulfilment deeper theoretical intricacy would otherwise bring.

One of the best things about studying materials science is being able to see the way scientific concepts fit together and are used in items that we take for granted every day.

In second year, I had the chance to take apart a kettle and use equipment in the lab to identify which materials were used, how they were made, and why they were chosen, and all of this using methods that we’d been taught in our practicals and lectures. It was challenging, fun and gratifying to basically pick something apart and figure out how and why it worked.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed working on a literature review, in which we get to pick a topic and have several weeks to read up on the area and summarise and evaluate it. I was reading many papers on the many ways people are attempting to induce magnetism in graphene, and although this started off as quite intimidating, by the end of it I’d learnt so much that I’d begun to get excited about the possibilities if graphene could be used in this way – including significant applications for spintronics (where a particle’s intrinsic spin is used to store and manipulate data, instead of its charge, as in conventional electronics), which would allow massive improvements in current data manipulation capabilities.

Studying materials science – especially in Cambridge – has been such an enriching experience, partly because it’s so interdisciplinary and partly because it allows a much deeper appreciation of the way the world physically works.

I have definitely enjoyed myself for the past three years, and would recommend it for any curious mind!

Danielle Ho En Huei
Undergraduate Student

Career Path: Science publishing – Meet the editor

What area of science are you working in?

I am the chief editor of Nature Reviews Materials – a journal published by Springer Nature. We launched in January 2016 and, as the first journal in the physical sciences within the Nature Reviews family, this was an exciting challenge. As its name suggests, we feature articles covering all topics of materials science — from condensed matter physics to spider silk, and from porous materials to materials for batteries.

I have been an editor for the past 13 years and for most of this time I have worked on the editorial team of a primary research journal.

Studying Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards, specialising in Chemistry in the latter years, gave me an excellent broad base that I find very useful even 20 years on.

I also engage with scientists – mostly in academia – and the fact that I spent time doing my own research, during my PhD years at the University of Durham, enables me to have some empathy with the highs and lows of scientific research.

What appeals to you about the work that you do?

As an editor on a primary research journal, you really feel like you’re at the coal face of research.  On a daily basis, you see a range of articles submitted to the journal and in amongst these could be a real gem. This is very exciting, especially because you never know when it’s going to happen.  Then, overseeing the peer-review process can be challenging and fascinating.

As an editor, it is your responsibility to select manuscripts for publication – using your own knowledge and with the help of the peer-review process.

By selecting what we publish, we become a venue for scientists to go to if they want to read some of the most impactful research in their areas.

I really enjoy being able to improve the written quality of the articles we publish. There is little teaching given to students and young academics on how to write a scientific article and most academics are grateful for the guidance we give them during the editing process. I find this part of the job very satisfying and enjoy helping them communicate their ideas in a clearer way.

How does what you do contribute to what we know or what we do?

As a Reviews journal, we offer a place for world-leading academics to give their opinions on the fields that they are specialists in. This can pose questions to their community that need to be addressed and on occasions act like a ‘call to action’ for the course of a field to be re-thought.

Where do you see the exciting challenges ahead?

In science publishing, the challenge is to move with the digital age and ensure that, as the readership moves to a generation more accustomed to social media outlets, that the content is easily reachable in this form.  Thinking more widely, the challenges for our community are those associated with funding. For researchers at universities in the UK – particularly Cambridge – the competition is probably higher than it’s ever been and this requires them to acknowledge this and raise their standards. The challenge to the researchers is to choose the right problems to work on, collaborate, and work hard to produce results and to communicate their results to the best of their abilities.

Why would you encourage young women today to consider choosing sciences?

For me personally, as an editor, I have found a role that enables me to use my science background and work in an environment with engaging colleagues. The role also has an aspect of it which requires you to work by yourself – for example, during the edit of an article and I can work away from the office while I complete these tasks.  As a result, I can manage my time to work around my family and I have had 3 children during my time with my current employer.

And finally, I have been lucky enough to witness the most prestigious award in science when my father, Fraser Stoddart, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October 2016.  The trip to Stockholm, meeting Barack Obama at the White House and a subsequent trip to China, have been huge highlights in recent months.  During this time, I met many inspiring men and women, who are truly committed to advancing science and enabling breakthroughs to happen and be acknowledged.

The possibilities are endless, if you wish to become a scientist.

Dr Alison Stoddart

School Winner: A Spiny Solution to Cleaning Our Oceans

Optunia Microdasys (‘Bunny ears’ cactus)

There has been increased demand for new methods of separating oil and water mixtures both from environmental protection organisations in aiding oil spill clean-ups and from the oil industry in order to improve oil recovery. An increase in oil trading has been seen since the mid-1980s and the ITOPF (International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation) reported that approximately 6,000 tonnes of oil was spilt in 2016 from tankers.

Now, we know that if an oil-water mixture is left undisturbed for an amount of time, it will separate by itself and form separate oil and water layers. However in a practical application, like an oil spill, there are in fact many micron sized oil droplets present in the water that must be separated out; a task current methods of oil separation (primarily through the use of membranes that allow water, but not oil to pass through) struggle with. An example is in homogenised milk where tiny fat droplets stay suspended in the milk, proving almost impossible to separate out. Despite this, it seems that a team of Chinese scientists have indeed found a novel solution: with the help of some spiny friends.

These scientists noted that certain species of cacti called Optunia microdasys (commonly referred to as a ‘bunny ears’ cactus) perform a task known as fog harvesting, where they extract tiny, micron-sized water droplets from the surrounding dessert air. These droplets are very similar to micron-sized oil droplets in found in water after an oil spill, allowing the scientists to move this system underwater.

Arrays of smooth (e) and rough (f) synthetic spines

They employed arrays of many half-millimetre long conical needles, made from oil-loving materials such as copper, that capture the miniscule droplets of oil. The interaction between the conical shape of the needle and the surface tension of the water droplet then allow it to be carried to the base of the spine. Once many oil droplets have been collected a large droplet is formed, which the scientists could easily pump out. Their tests showed that these synthesised ‘cactus skins’ could separate up to 99% of  the oil from water and next will require scaling up and testing in field situations.

Fusion of the natural world and science like this is in no way a new idea – it is in fact called Biomimicry.

Biomimicry is a simple idea: emulating and applying nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies in novel ways to seek sustainable solutions to human challenges. It is a whole new way of seeing the natural world around us and who knows where the next solution may come from.

From dolphins to mosquitos, the natural world has already provided inspiration for not only ingenious solutions like the development of tsunami early warning systems that save lives, but in everyday items too. For example Velcro copies sticky plant burrs that get attached to animal fur, and flippers that allow divers to glide through the water mimic the webbed feet and fins of aquatic animals. Mosquitos have inspired ‘nicer’ needles and termites have told us how to build sustainable buildings. With applications in practically every area, from energy to architecture, biomimicry is a growing field and who knows? – the next great scientific breakthrough may lie in your own backyard!

Jasmine Foister
Year 12

“Hi, my name is Jasmine and I am currently in Y12 studying Biology, Chemistry and Maths. At the moment I have about 14 cacti and am quickly running out of space on my windowsill. I also enjoy art and you can often find me crafting clay llamas, crocheting kittens or throwing paint at something.”


Cactus-inspired material cleans oily water –