Has the region lost its creative spark?

THE North East – a region which gave the world the electric light bulb, the safety match and the steam engine – seems to have lost its creative spark, with new figures showing that it has slumped well below the national average when it comes to dreaming up new inventions.

Inventor Joseph Swan

THE North East – a region which gave the world the electric light bulb, the safety match and the steam engine – seems to have lost its creative spark, with new figures showing that it has slumped well below the national average when it comes to dreaming up new inventions.

A report from the European Patent Office (EPO) shows that there were just 68 European patent applications filed in the North East for 2009, compared with 210 in Yorkshire and the Humber, 500 in the North West, 526 in East England and 263 in the West Midlands.

The region ranks only slightly higher than the Isle of Man, an area with a population of around 76,000 and which registered 43 applications during the same period.

The figures could be a sign that the region’s creative juices are beginning to dry up following a recent report from the British Library that saw the North East come out on top of a table ranking creative output, per person, per pound, invested in research and development between 2000 and 2009.

Martin Vinsome, a chartered patent attorney and partner at Leeds-based Urquhart-Dykes & Lord LLP (UDL), believes that, while the EPO report may be slightly skewed by large companies which have a centralised product development process despite a presence in the North East, they could also indicate a lack of awareness about the need to protect new innovations.

Patent applications are made to protect new products and inventions from being replicated by rival parties, and are key in ensuring research and development investment delivers returns.

He said: “The cost of protecting products is relatively small compared to the investment needed to develop them, so firms are really putting themselves at a huge disadvantage if they fail to submit patent applications.

“I believe part of the problem in the North East is a lack of awareness on how to protect products. Without intellectual property protection, it’s very difficult to stop a competitor from stealing an idea, but many businesses in the region do not know how to apply for a patent cost effectively.

“Very few companies in the North East have a mechanism in place to protect their innovations, and there’s no doubt that this has a detrimental effect on the regional economy.”

On a national scale, UK organisations made 4,813 European patent applications in 2009, compared with 25,030 in Germany, 8,899 in France and 6,725 in Holland.

The North East ranked on a par with some relatively rural areas or Europe such as Drenthe, in northern Holland, and Luneburg – a German town with a population of 72,000 – as an area with less than 100 patent applications per year.

Vinsome said: “It is concerning for the national economy, as well as the regional one, that we are falling behind our overseas rivals when it comes to protecting our new products and we could suffer the fallout from this in the coming years as those new products take off.”

However, not all firms involved with the patent industry have seen a decline in North East invention.

One such is Amtech Rapid Prototyping in South Shields, which makes a wide range of prototypes for blue chip companies as well as entrepreneurs and recently saw its annual sales grow from £400,000 to over £500,000.

However, the firm’s managing director Ian Judd is now concerned that the decision to close regional development agencies such as One North East could put off many budding inventors from flexing their creative muscles.

He said: “We have been really busy this year, with the number of products and inventions based in the North East holding steady.

“If it is true that the number of patents is at such a low level in the region, I would be concerned about the situation getting even worse.

“Bodies such as One North East have provided such fantastic support to creative individuals in this region.

“However, as a result of the spending cuts, it looks as though inventors will be given less support to help them get their ideas to market.”

Patent applications are made to protect new products and inventions being replicated by rival parties

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