Parajet – the flying car and patents

by Andrew Watson on 12 November 2008

A flying car has been a goal of engineers and The Jetsons fans alike for a number of years now. The Times has a story (“The Flying Car” – 9 Nov. 2008) about the SkyCar – a working (and inexpensive) design based around “paramotors”. These giant fans get strapped to your back and when added to a parachute-like airwing, you can take off flying: a much more practical way of flying than by jetpack.

The SkyCar, a product of UK-based Parajet Ltd, uses paramotors strapped to a vehicle as a way to achieve flight. The car is street legal and its inventors will be taking it on a bio-ethanol fueled challenge to drive it from the UK all the way to Timbuktu, including across the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar.

It looks like from the article that they’ve taken a bunch of existing technologies and innovated around them in really interesting ways, including a motorcycle engine modded to run on bioethanol and a snowmobile transmission:

“The fan’s static when you’re driving around,” says Cardozo [the primary inventor at Parajet]. “The engineering challenge was getting a really reliable system that will switch power between wheels or fan.”

I instantly wondered if they had taken steps to protect their invention, such as through patenting, as we’ve actually seen quite a few UK-based start ups and other companies who “under-patent”, often based on the conception that patenting requires ground-breaking, award winning science. In actuality, combining current technologies in interesting ways can also be patentable. I did a quick search on esp@cenet and didn’t find any in the company’s name, though with an 18 month window between application and publication, this isn’t surprising. Of course rather than underpatenting, they could forgo patenting in order to create a new market for paramotors that anyone can participate in.

This story serves to highlight two themes I’d like to return to regularly:

  1. Do UK companies patent less than comparable companies in other jurisdictions, and if so, why?
  2. What are the strategies around opening up innovation and how do they work?

Most certainly, a discussion to be continued…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Halton 11.12.08 at 7:00 pm

I think you are right that British companies have a tendency to think that only earth-shattering, ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting inventions are patentable. Not sure why that view should be so prevalent.

A couple of other reasons why I find clients are often reluctant to bother with patents:

1. A belief (probably, in many cases, justifiable) that they can make more money out of continual innovating and moving on to improved techniques/technologies than by patenting. i.e. by the time the patent is granted, it will already be two years out of date, they’ll have moved on, and who cares if their competitors want to use two-year old technology?

2. The costs of enforcement (more of a concern than the costs of prosecution).

3. Most of my clients are more established companies rather than start-ups, so they don’t have a need for patents as an identifiable asset (“IP” – yes, I know…) that a VC or other investor perceives could be sold off should the company fall over.

John Halton 11.12.08 at 7:02 pm

And of course it’s entirely, depressingly possible that the inventors of the SkyJet are, even now, excitedly phoning a patent attorney to see if it’s worth putting an application in, now that the product has generated so much interest and is therefore worth protecting… 😉

Jordan 11.13.08 at 10:35 am

Hi John, thanks for the comments. While I agree with Point 1 that a company can decide to forgo patents in areas of rapid innovation (though it would be key to engage in defensive publication to prevent others from patenting), I’m wondering further about points 2. and 3.

On enforcement (point 2.), there is a lot that companies can do with a patent before filing a lawsuit to generate income / build value and have it support the commercial strategy (e.g. licensing). So maybe, in addition to feeling that patents need to be Nobel Prize worthy, they (wrongly IMO) feel that filing lawsuits is the only use for them and that this is costly.

On patents as an identifiable asset (point 3), I don’t think that VCs are looking at patents in their portfolio companies as a way to hedge their bet in case the business fails (b/c they can at least sell the patents). Rather they look to patents — and hopefully other IP as well — to see how well the company is executing its business strategy and whether and how they use IP to support it.

Even more established companies will at some point need investment (say at IPO or private capital for expansion) and so will get some review of their IP. Even for those that don’t have those kind of events on their horizon, by not protecting their IP properly (including patenting), they could still be losing out.

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