Covid-19 and IP: the green shoots of recovery

First published in Cambridge Catalyst, Parminder Lally explores how the pandemic has accelerated innovation.

Wow, what a strange year 2020 has turned out to be! For the January issue, I was asked to write about my tech and IP predictions, but I did not predict that many of us would become remote workers almost overnight. The pandemic has transformed our lives and impacted every industry. However, rather than slowing down innovation, I would say innovation has been accelerated by the pandemic. I was a little surprised by how soon I observed the signs that certain sectors were back up and running and some sectors were as active, if not more active, in generating innovation.

The high-tech sector, particularly companies who operate in the software space, was quick to recover. You will be well-acquainted with Zoom and Microsoft Teams by now – who could have predicted that so many of us would become reliant on these technologies to keep in touch with our colleagues, friends and family? At the start of lockdown, Zoom quickly became the platform of choice for video calls. However, this seems to have spurred Microsoft to further develop the Teams app. For example, Zoom allowed you to view lots of people on screen in gallery mode, while Microsoft Teams initially had a limit of four visible participants – Microsoft quickly changed this to nine people, and plans to expand this even further. When people started to complain about ‘Zoom fatigue’, Microsoft started to develop a ‘Together mode’ which aims to reduce the cognitive load of a video call. I for one have enjoyed watching the competition between these two companies, which, ultimately, results in better products for us.

Robotic systems have existed for some time in warehouses and manufacturing plants, but the pandemic has accelerated the interest in using robot helpers in a variety of areas. Companies developing robots to perform weeding, spraying and harvesting have been inundated with orders from farmers due to the shortage in agricultural workers (which may become even more of an issue when the UK leaves the EU), and such companies are also attracting more investment now. The same is true for companies developing vertical farms, where crops can be watered and fed using minimal human labour. We’re also seeing companies that develop robotic assistants for the home attract a lot of interest, including robots that can provide people who live on their own with someone to talk to in an attempt to make people feel less lonely.

Robotic systems such as these tend to go hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence (AI) innovation. Arguably, AI that improves human-machine interaction may be more important now as we continue to work remotely and our face-to-face interactions with other humans are reduced. We have seen companies of all sizes continuing to innovate in the areas of computer vision, speech recognition and emotion recognition.

There may be plenty of exciting innovation generation going on, but the IP budgets of all types of companies are stretched more than ever. I recently heard that a well-known multinational personal care company has lost income because people are washing their hair and using deodorant less frequently during lockdown! Companies may need to, at least temporarily, deviate from how they usually manage their IP to make best use of their IP budget. For start-ups, this may involve keeping ideas secret for longer, while SMEs and multinationals may need to make the tough decision to cut down their IP portfolios. If you’d like advice on how you can best protect your IP while on a tight budget, do get in touch or take a look at our series of articles on IP in a post-COVID world: https://appleyardleesgreenshoots.com/intellectual-property-for-start-ups-in-a-post-covid-world/