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Why tech startups need to get to grips with intellectual property

Intellectual Property - every business has it but some of us don't know what it is or how we can protect it. Ian Sterritt from the Intellectual Property Office discusses why tech companies need to take their IP seriously.

What do we actually mean when we talk about Intellectual Property?

The main misconception about IP is that it's all about patents. In reality, physical inventions are only one element of IP that you can protect. Essentially, Intellectual Property is anything that has been created from intellectual thought. That covers off practically every business that has ever existed!

Apart from patents then, what else do companies need to protect?

To help get your head around it, you can break IP down into 5 key areas:


Registered designs

Trade Marks


Trade secrets

So how can tech companies, in particular, protect themselves? 

Software companies need to recognise the value of what they're creating. For most, it will be their products, which will start with code. It's hard to patent software but you can copyright it because, essentially, that code is written down.

By simply putting a © and a date next to it you're identifying yourself as the originator of that code. OK, it's not going to put everyone off trying to copy you, but it can certainly act as a deterrent. And if you don't do this, how can you prove that you got there first?

Is protecting your IP all about mitigating risk, or are there other benefits to it? 

There is huge value associated with protecting your IP but the truth is that far too few tech companies realise this. It's our job at the Intellectual Property Office to help companies understand where the value lies in their organisations and how they can protect themselves and make informed choices.

For a tech start-up it's really important - essentially they're creating new value from Day One and those early days of innovation are the most important.

But the time when some companies recognise that they need to have protected IP is when they're looking to sell. Suddenly you're faced with a potential acquirer who's questioning what it is that they're actually buying.

Rather than scrambling around as part of due diligence it makes much more sense to have everything in place from the start-up phase. That way you also minimise the risk when your business can be most vulnerable.

We're now starting to see IP due diligence play a much bigger part in the acquisition process. Buyers want to know what value your Intellectual Property assets have. In fact, if you look at UK PLC as a whole, the most recent statistics show that we invest more in intangible assets than in tangible assets (£133 billion to £120 billion).

Collectively speaking our intangible assets - in which much Intellectual Property often sits - is hugely valuable. By protecting this you're making yourself more valuable and attractive to the wider market and mitigating risk at the same time.

Do you work in the Digital, Creative and Tech sector? Our fully-funded support includes a combination of direct one to one business growth support, peer-to-peer collaboration, and access to cutting-edge information, strategies and techniques: Digital, Creative and Tech sector support

Discover how you can use Digital and Technology to grow your business.

If you would like any advice on Intellectual Property and information on how you can protect it, contact


Ian Sterritt

Ian Sterritt, North West Business Support Policy Officer, Intellectual Property Office

Ian is responsible for IPO Business Support in the Northern Powerhouse. Ian has 30 years’ experience as an entrepreneur managing the commercialisation of several high-profile new technology solutions within both established and fast-growing companies. He has broad knowledge across several technologies and industries − from electronics and software apps, to manufacturing in the food and drink sector – with a history of building collaborations, managing a diverse Intellectual Property portfolio, strategy formulation and innovation practice.


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