Giving Sustainable Innovation the Green Light

With the return of the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet’ highlighting the damaging effects of environmental changes on our oceans’ inhabitants, the continued need for sustainable development and environmentally-friendly innovation is once again at the forefront of public debate.

Green Technology

Governments and companies all over the world are both promoting and investing in ‘Green Innovation’, striving to create economic growth around the technologies that provide beneficial effects to the environment. Also known as ‘Clean Technology’, such green innovations are designed to reduce pollution, encourage efficient energy generation, reduce or even eliminate the production of hazardous waste substances and increase usage of alternative fuels in order to have the smallest possible impact on the planet’s diminishing non-renewable resources. Recent developments in the field of green technology have been dynamic, with a number of progressive innovations providing wide reaching engagement with green chemistry and sustainability. Such innovations include:

  • graphene oxide membranes for water purification;
  • collaborative research projects such as ‘CarbFix’, a project investigating a permeant geological storage solution for carbon dioxide through reaction of the greenhouse gas with basaltic bedrock; and
  • solar coatings titanium dioxide and a moisture-absorbing catalysts to harness and convey both the energy of the sun and ambient air moisture into a renewable hydrogen fuel.

Protecting Your Intellectual Property

With businesses focusing on finding sustainable environmental solutions, there are increasing opportunities for the growth and development of green innovation. Governments, companies and investors alike are looking to invest in the future of this growing market sector. Consequently, the value of obtaining a granted patent for such innovations should certainly not be overlooked. A granted patent enables its proprietor to prevent competitors from utilising or even copying new innovations and furthermore, may be a requirement for securing investment necessary to establish a foothold in this expanding market or facilitate a licensing agreement to meet growing demands. Such commercial opportunities can be lost as a result of delay during the prosecution of patent applications.

The Green Channel

Fortunately, the UK Government recognises the need for speedy implementation of green technology and the UK Intellectual Property Office permits accelerated prosecution of patent applications directed towards green innovations via a ‘Green Channel’ program. The Green Channel program, now in its eighth year, significantly reduces the average time for an applicant to obtain a granted patent from around 4 years to 9 months, enabling applicants to keep pace with changing market conditions.

To be considered for accelerated prosecution via the Green Channel program, an applicant must file a written request outlining how their application is environmentally-friendly and additionally, the actions at the UK IPO that they wish to be accelerated: search, examination, combined search and examination and/or publication. The UK IPO states that the program is “available to patent applicants who make reasonable assertion that the invention has some environmental benefit” and further acknowledges that “inventions which have an environmental benefit can arise in any area of technology”. Moreover, the UK IPO’s Green Channel does not require innovations to comply with any specific environmental standards and thus may be deemed to provide relatively low barriers for interested participants.

The Story So Far

Since the launch of the Green Channel initiative in 2009, the UK IPO has maintained a public database of all of the patent applications and granted patents accelerated using the program. A brief review of this database, now listing 1755 patent applications and granted patents, demonstrates the diverse nature of innovations qualifying for Green Channel acceleration. For example, the database includes innovations ranging from diesel oxidation catalysts and exhaust systems, to unmanned aerial vehicles, methods of bleaching hair and adjustable bicycle frames. The approved Green Channel request relating to the adjustable bicycle frame simply states that the frame is intended primarily for children, the frame’s adjustable nature allowing the frame to grow with the child such that it lasts longer and reduces waste material. It is therefore submitted that the range of eligible technologies for Green Channel participation is perhaps wider than immediately apparent.

International Recognition

The UK IPO has been a driving force in the development and implementation of green innovation through accelerated prosecution in the patent world. In fact, in 2011, the UK IPO was nominated for a Climate Week Award for its Green Channel program under the category of Best Initiative by a Government or Statutory Body. Statistics released by the UK IPO in 2014 disclosed that 969 requests for accelerated prosecution had been received since 2009, with only 13 of those requests being refused. Furthermore, the UK IPO’s Green Channel initiative has motivated patent offices worldwide to offer similar fast-track programs for environmentally-friendly applications, including the patent offices of Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the US, Canada, Brazil and China. Specific eligibility requirements vary between jurisdictions, with the average time to grant cut by between 42% to 75% across the different patent offices.

Don’t Miss a Trick

Despite the effectiveness of the Green Channel initiative in accelerating patent prosecution in the UK, it appears that only around 1% of the total patent applications filed in 2012 and 2013 requested prosecution under the Green Channel program. In fact, in 2012, former Intellectual Property Minister Baroness Wilcox challenged UK firms to utilise the Green Channel, highlighting that “protecting your intellectual property, and maximising its economic potential, makes a real impact especially for small companies which are the lifeblood of the UK economy”. Furthermore, a 2013 study demonstrated that only a relatively small proportion of applications relating to eligible technology filed in patent offices across the world actually request consideration for green fast-track schemes. This low uptake of green fast-track schemes, such as the UK IPO’s Green Channel, may simply be a result of a lack of recognition of the eligibility of an applicant’s technology for the Green Channel, which as discussed above, may in fact encompass a broader spectrum of innovations than immediately apparent. However, there are often other considerations in an applicant’s intellectual property strategy that lead them to opt out of such programs. In many cases, the delaying of grant is commercially advantageous in terms of filing divisional applications or broadening the scope of protection prior to grant. Nevertheless, it should be noted by applicants that the UK IPO’s Green Channel can be utilised at different stages of prosecution. Ultimately, the program may have advantages not just in procuring an accelerated grant but also in simply obtaining an accelerated search in order for applicants to identify relevant prior art documents at an early stage of proceedings.

However, it is clear that the UK IPO’s Green Channel provides a practical option for applicants seeking to develop and market innovative green technology, adding significant value to businesses flourishing in this quickly expanding market sector. Intellectual Property Manager of Protean Electric, the proprietor of the 100th patent granted under the Green Channel stated that “the green channel patent system has been central to our company’s strategy, allowing us to get patents on our innovative and green technology within a year. This has helped us to attract new investment and potential customers”.

With the demand for sustainable technology only looking to grow larger, the UK IPO’s Green Channel will hopefully continue to encourage crucial future green innovation and sustainable development.

As both qualified chemists and highly experienced patent attorneys, GJE’s Chemistry team is best positioned to help ensure your business enjoys a safe and successful future. For more information on the Green Channel programme and how GJE can can help you, please contact us via chemistry@gje.com.