A week before lockdown was imposed in March, Dane Whitehurst and his wife put the finishing touches to a room at their home in Kent that they hoped would be a chill-out space for them and their three-year-old daughter. With normal working life abruptly halted, however, the room was urgently filled with desks and technical equipment, and any plans for relaxation were put on hold. From this temporary prototyping facility, looking out on to his garden, product designer Whitehurst began thinking about what life would be like in a post-coronavirus world.
As creative director at a firm called Burgopak, Whitehurst works with a small team of colleagues developing “innovative packaging” for a range of products including bank cards, drinks and small electronics. Now his thoughts turned to how, in a hygiene-obsessed future, people would increasingly reject cash in favour of cards – stored, potentially, in an inventive new style of wallet.
“It’s [an idea] that we have had tucked away in the back of our minds for some time, but we’ve never had the time to fully explore it,” he says. “The time and space now has given us the opportunity to do that. You know how you get those eureka moments where all of a sudden the pieces slot together? I think the way we have been working has created the environment where that can happen.”
Whitehurst has now applied to patent the “magic wallet”, part of what some intellectual property lawyers have reported is a rush of new applications since the lockdown period began. “We’ve certainly seen a lot of people coming to us with Covid-related innovation that they want to protect,” says Mark Richardson, a partner and patent attorney at Keltie LLP, the law firm working with Burgopak. “We’ve had people looking at decontamination systems, PPE, there has certainly been an uptick in that area.”
Christopher Hamer, a partner at intellectual property specialists Mathys and Squire, agrees: “In terms of the volume of new work [since the crisis began], it was a striking amount, and I know other firms have seen this as well.
“A lot of it has been people coming and saying, ‘we have talked about this in the past and I would like to progress it.’ They are looking at their long-term future and trying to understand where they are going to be when things go back to normal.”
Although precise figures will not be available until next year, according to a spokeswoman for the Intellectual Property Office where British applications are filed, “early indicators suggest that input this year is up on the January to April period last year”.
While some of the new applications directly address virus-related problems, others may have arisen from their creators processing a backlog of admin. By contrast, in some sectors such as pharmaceuticals, notes Tim Belcher, managing associate at law firm EIP, innovation has slowed due to laboratories having closed.
But with the option of patenting ruled out the instant an idea has been discussed with anyone, Belcher says, the impetus to protect a good idea, even under lockdown, is clear. “They need to come to us before they have spoken to possible manufacturers, before they have discussed it with their friend on a Zoom call.”
Another innovator who has done that is Atif Syed, CEO and founder of a firm called Wootzano. From a unit in Sedgefield, county Durham, the small company has developed what it describes as “electronic skin”, a highly stretchable polymer that Syed says can detect sensations “the way you and I would, understanding touch, pressure, temperature, humidity”.
While it could have many applications, the lockdown has underlined its potential use for robots picking soft fruit, where packing facilities faced with post-coronavirus labour shortages are increasingly looking at automation. The firm has been working on the skin for some time, but the crisis has driven the response from potential customers.
“Whenever situations like this happen, there will always be new applications [for the product],” says Syed.
One innovation with a very clear potential benefit has been developed at Imperial College, London, where a team of product designers and behavioural scientists have come up with a new product to encourage handwashing in developing countries.
“Everyone in the world knows about hand-washing, pretty much,” says project leader Weston Baxter, but research by the team in Tanzania showed that bars of soap were viewed by many as items for laundry and dish-washing, not for washing their hands after using the toilet.
In response, they developed a cheap and easily produced soap “tab” and dispenser system which, trials in the country show, dramatically increased rates of hand-washing.
In a time of immense new challenges, Baxter says, the opportunities for new ideas are enormous. “Whenever there is a lot of friction like this, it means there is a lot of opportunity for innovation. There has been a lot of very fast trial and error, certainly faster than we have seen in a normal time.”
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