IP Centrum: upsetting the apple cart

10-06-2017

Simon de Banke

IP Centrum: upsetting the apple cart

aluxum / iStockphoto.com

Renewals and EP validation services may not seem like the most obvious place for innovation in the IP industry, but at IP Centrum the aim is to profoundly change the way the business works. WIPR spoke to CEO Simon de Banke to find out more.

The story of business in the 21st century is one of disruption. There are, of course, companies that have remained successful and relevant by doing what they’ve always done, or at least, by refining what they’ve always done. But more and more, the companies that make waves are the ones that rethink not just the way they do things, but the way their whole ecosystems operate.

For social media companies, that has meant revisiting the traditional division between customer and product to create a system in which customers are the products; for Uber and Airbnb, it meant understanding that providing cars or accommodation doesn’t necessitate owning either, but rather requires facilitating engagement between the owners and the users.

The technologies underpinning these companies are not necessarily in themselves disruptive (although good tech is vital); what is truly revolutionary is how these companies look at the world, imagining different versions of it and overturning ‘truths’ about the way their markets operate.

The IP industry, to the extent that it can be described as a single thing, is unusual in being extremely forward-looking and quite traditional at the same time: patents are both agents of the most cutting-edge innovation and repositories of traditional, conservative monopoly rights; patent laws are more than a century old but still expected to serve innovative landscapes that are entirely unrecognisable from when they were written.

This paradox extends to business practices too. Lawyers, patent attorneys and IP service providers all provide predictable service levels, but the nature of the industry often means that their service is a version of what everyone else does, with the things that distinguish one provider from another coming at the margins. Price, or personal relationships, or reputation, then becomes the governing reason to choose one provider over another. While these are all certainly valid reasons to make a choice about who to work with, it is a rare company in this industry that approaches a problem in a genuinely different way.

"IP Centrum is changing the way the industry thinks about IP formalities, starting with renewals and EP validations."

New ideas

IP Centrum does think differently. Its rural hub just outside the UK’s second city, Birmingham, might seem an unlikely place for innovative thinking. And yet, with over 50% annual growth for the past four years and a client list that covers some of the biggest companies and most prominent IP firms in the world, IP Centrum is changing the way the industry thinks about IP formalities, starting with renewals and EP validations.

Simon de Banke, the company’s CEO, has a vision for IP services, a determination to be different not just for the sake of it, but because he’s convinced that new thinking produces better results. He tells WIPR that when the company launched, the team did everything from scratch—rather than look at what the industry and competition did, it decided to build its operation from the ground up, reasoning that old industry habits might just as easily be bad habits as good ones, and that just because something is done in a certain way doesn’t mean that it has to be done that way.

As a result, IP Centrum doesn’t look much like its competitors. As de Banke says: “We have absolutely no sales team. The IP industry is smart. Forward-thinking, IP formalities professionals don’t need a glossy PowerPoint presentation in order to recognise the differences between us and the competition.

“We don’t ask clients to sign a tie-in contract—they can use us for a single instruction, or for their entire portfolio—and should they want to leave we make it extremely easy for them to do so, with our blessing and good wishes (although this almost never happens).”

The technology itself is interesting, developed and refined by the software engineers and designers who constitute the engine room of the business.

The renewals interface is a departure from the grey forms and lists that are familiar, and is immediately recognisable as something special.

It is easy to understand and comprehensive, enabling clients to exercise granular control over everything from cost to currency to timings to integration with their own platforms, but rather than being intimidating, de Banke explains that “every element has been crafted to give comfort and to be a true pleasure to use.”

The technology is not merely a beautification of the things that every other service provider does—underlying the technology is the same thing that underpins all great businesses: hard work.

Attention to detail

The level of obsession and detailed thought that has gone into the system is genuinely unusual. For example, IP Centrum’s planning for what happens in the event of a technology failure at an IP office on renewal day not only encompasses the mundane question of what other methods of payment are available, but extends to how long it takes each of its agents to travel to the patent office at different times of the day, taking traffic and parking requirements into account. This allows IP Centrum to know instantly whether an urgent payment is possible, or in marginal cases, if an alternative agent is a better choice.

The basics are comprehensive; the Renewal Visualiser shows every price break, every grace period, deadline and currency fluctuation, all in a single view.

The Deadline Visualiser tracks in real time the deadlines that matter—before surcharge, and before critical deadline, for an entire portfolio on a single screen. The array of entirely reimagined features and methods is hard to take in all at once, yet somehow it all appears simple.

Initially, it might seem a bit idealistic and maybe even far-fetched to an outside observer, but the longer you spend in the system and engaging with the people, the more convincing it becomes.

The software interface really is different. Everyone cares about what they do, and there is a palpable sense of relentless passion and precision about every interaction and communication.

This kind of attention to detail is borne out of the company’s culture—it feels like a hotbed of discussion and a forum in which all ideas are worth voicing, where people don’t rest until the best possible solution has been unearthed.

The calibre of people at IP Centrum makes all the difference. “We treat our people with huge respect. They work incredible hours without being asked, and truly put their heart and soul into supporting our clients and into everything we do,” de Banke explains.

“We make the hard decision to let people go quickly if they don’t have what it takes or just don’t have the same level of care as the rest of us—in order to respect the people who do.”

The results speak for themselves. De Banke says that the company handles more validations than any other business in the world, but has never missed a deadline or had a single loss.

It normally completes a validation family in two weeks, rather than several months, including billing.

IP Centrum is at pains to maintain its total independence, even where that might seem to cost it potential business. 

“We do not require any form of reciprocal work from our agent network, so we remain entirely independent and focus only on providing the best possible service to our clients through the best agents, rather than the agents that pay us the most money,” de Banke says.

“We don’t just pass on instructions, we take full responsibility, through to completion. This was vital to us. Many IP services companies seek to limit their liability in respect of the work their agents do, but it’s us who selects the agents, so why should our clients have to take responsibility for the work our agents perform?

“These kinds of departures from the norm are painful. For example, it took an enormous amount of work to develop the level of controls and process we have in place which makes it possible for us to take this end-to-end responsibility. We leave absolutely nothing to chance.”

This attitude pervades the company culture; staff are expected to take responsibility for what they do, to own their mistakes and support their colleagues’ ideas as well as coming up with their own.

De Banke has created an environment that looks and feels like a Silicon Valley tech company writ small. It’s geeky, obsessive, and it’s also, perhaps, slightly evangelical about IP formalities. The tests will no doubt come as the company continues to grow from its beginnings as a punchy upstart with a disruptor’s mentality into an even bigger player.

“Our ethos is such that unless we can be the absolute best in the world at what we do—by a factor of ten—we find it hard to get excited enough about it to obsess as deeply as is necessary, and to work the crazy hours and put in the insane passion required to truly achieve that,” de Banke says.

Maintain that ethos, and IP Centrum really could upset the apple cart. 

Centrum, upsetting, apple, Centrum, Simon de Banke, CEO

WIPR