UK: A Global Patent Player

Last Updated: 18 May 2018
Article by Magnus Johnston

Magnus Johnston, a partner at patent attorney firm Haseltine Lake, knows a good idea when he hears one and is helping entrepreneurs to protect their innovations and bring them to market.

FEW television series have captured the public's imagination like Blue Planet II. Over the course of six weeks, presenter Sir David Attenborough and his team wowed audiences with films of surfing dolphins, nesting albatrosses and turtles enjoying spa treatments.

Yet what really made the nature documentary stand out was what happened in its seventh episode. Instead of more images of weird and wonderful creatures, the programme dedicated a whole hour to the effect that humanity's pollution in general – and plastic in particular – is having on our world's oceans.

The result was mind-blowing. Within days, Chancellor Philip Hammond was making reference to Blue Planet II in his Budget as he announced plans for a plastic tax.

The need to protect the planet's seas struck a chord with Magnus Johnston, a partner in the newly-opened Glasgow office of patent attorney firm Haseltine Lake. As a Shetlander, Johnston grew up on an archipelago of islands surrounded on one side by the North Atlantic and on the other by the North Sea, where fishing is still a way of life for many, and renewable energy regeneration is beginning to replace oil and gas as a major driver of the local economy.

Now, Johnston is helping one of his clients, Evesham Specialist Packaging (ESP), ride the wave of success as the tide turns against plastic packaging. "ESP makes non-plastic fibre trays, which are used by supermarkets to sell packs of soft fruits like plums and peaches," he explains.

"I worked with the company to file a patent for its trays, which then allowed it to cut its corporation tax bill by using the patent box, because a significant proportion of its revenues are derived from those trays. Seeing the success of that first patent has stoked the company's innovative streak and it's now looking at ways of developing new products that can help to prolong the shelf life of soft fruit.

"It's great when companies can start seeing the benefits of patents and other forms of intellectual property (IP) protection like that. There are always costs involved and it's difficult when they come at the start of a business's journey, but IP protection is an investment for the future of the company and can pay big dividends in the long-term."

Working with plastics is nothing new to Johnston, who studied chemistry with new materials technology at the University of Aberdeen. He then stayed on at the institution to complete his doctorate in chemistry.

"That's when I decided I needed to get a proper job," he laughs. "I saw an advert for Haseltine Lake, which said 'If you still love chemistry but are fed up with life in the lab then we've got the job for you' – which perfectly described how I was feeling.

"I still loved science – and do so now – but I knew I didn't have the same spark as some of my colleagues that gave them those unique ideas. You need to be a scientist before you can be a patent attorney though – you need to know the science and then you can learn about the law on the job."

Johnston joined Haseltine Lake at its head office in Bristol in 2003 and qualified as a European patent attorney in 2008. During his time in the South-West of England, he forged close links with universities in the surrounding area, including Bath and Cardiff.

"Universities are great breeding grounds for innovative ideas and I worked with them to make sure our services were accessible," he says. "Cost is a consideration for everyone, but money is especially tight when it comes to university start-ups and spin-outs."

His career has developed to include specialisms in pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and materials chemistry, including an eclectic mix of areas such as "lubricants, fuels, polymers, functional fluids and mineral processing". Along the way, he gained in-house experience too, spending 2007 on secondment with a multinational petrochemical corporation in the US.

Opening the practice's Glasgow premises in October 2017 marked a return to Scotland for Johnston. He's already recruited his first patent attorney for the office and is working hard to promote the firm's brand.

"There's a shortage of patent attorneys throughout the UK, but competition is even more fierce in Scotland," he says. "Recruitment is a big focus for us at the moment. "We need clients that will innovate, otherwise we don't have a business. That's why Scotland is a great place for us to be.

"There is a lot happening in Scotland – it has a great support network for early-stage businesses. There's an unbelievable array of incubation centres and enterprise zones and support funds, with Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government supporting a lot of it. We are now seeing private investment following, which is really encouraging.

"The universities – especially places like Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Strathclyde – are obviously big drivers of innovation in Scotland. I think they play a bigger part in the ecosystem in Scotland than they do in other parts of the UK."

Johnston has his eye on competing with some of the existing big players in the Scottish market, including HGF, Marks & Clerk and Murgitroyd. "I think there's room in the market for another player of our size," he says confidently.

As well as signing-up as a sponsor of the IP100 and the IP League Table, Haseltine Lake is a long-standing supporter of the UK Science Parks Association and PraxisAuril, cementing its relationship with universities, research institutions and the technology businesses that form part of their wider infrastructure. "Supporting these organisations demonstrates that we're part of the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem and helps us to form lasting relationships with businesses," Johnston explains.

Haseltine Lake may be a newcomer to Scotland, but the firm has deep roots south of the border, with operations in Bristol and London. The practice traces its origins back to 1850 and throughout 2018 is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its office in Munich, which is also home to the European Patent Office.

In 2010, the company opened a branch in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and now also has a base in Guangzhou, in China. The firm has grown to employ more than 150 staff across its six offices.

As well as opening its Glasgow branch, the company has also been expanding its team in other parts of the UK too. In January 2018, it appointed Matthew Howell, a UK and European patent attorney and patent attorney litigator, as a partner in its Bristol office.

News of Howell's arrival came just weeks after Chris Morris re-joined the Bristol office where he began his career, returning as an associate partner. At the same time, it was announced that Stuart Clarkson was joining the London office as a UK and European patent attorney, bringing with him experience at Bosch, DeLaval and Halliburton.

Having offices spread over such a wide range of locations also inspired the firm's recent efforts to raise nearly £13,000 for Worldwide Cancer Research, enough to fund 536 hours or 67 days of scientific investigations. As well as fitness-based activities, cake sales and match-funding from the firm itself, the efforts included a 2,000-kilometre static cycle challenge dubbed "Tour de Haseltine Lake", representing the distance between the firm's offices.

Originally published by IP100 Special Report 2018.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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