How Can Trade Secrets Be Used To Better Protect Cleantech Innovation?

Potter Clarkson


Potter Clarkson is one of Europe’s leading full-service IP law firms. Our IP attorneys and solicitors maximise the value of our clients' innovation by providing the experience, vision and clarity required to create, protect, leverage and defend their ideas in the most commercial and strategic ways all over the world.
Regardless of the focus area and the particular segment of the climate, energy or food crisis they are attempting to address, the one thing all cleantech businesses have in common...
UK Intellectual Property
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Given the range of vital global issues it is attempting to resolve, cleantech has become an enormous umbrella that sits above every scientific discipline from the most complex biotechnology through to cutting-edge digital tech.

Regardless of the focus area and the particular segment of the climate, energy or food crisis they are attempting to address, the one thing all cleantech businesses have in common is their innovation is producing highly valuable assets. These assets give their businesses their competitive edge. They also provide the solid foundation they'll need as they begin to take their science to the world and, over time, scale up and roll out their inventions so they have the desired environmental impact

Again, the types of assets they generate will vary depending on the ideas, the business, its objectives, and its chosen business model. However, some of the common types of assets involve manufacturing processes, formulae and recipes, research and development data, software algorithms, marketing and market intelligence, environmental impact assessment data, monitoring and control systems, and - specific to biotech-driven innovations - genetic sequences, microbial strains, or enzymatic processes.

While patent protection may have traditionally been seen as the 'gold standard' for protecting the science behind the innovation in cleantech, this is rapidly changing. Given the speed of travel not to mention the difficulty of protecting some of the areas listed above, trade secrets are becoming an increasingly attractive option for cleantech businesses.

Any information that has commercial value (now or in the future) because it is kept secret can be protected as a trade secret. Note, there is no requirement that the information is technical in nature, and information relating to your market or client base may also give rise to a trade secret. Better still, the protection is free to obtain (as long as certain provisions are met, which we will go into in more detail in the final section of this blog) and lasts for as long as you keep your trade secrets a secret.


There are some key threats that will need to be addressed if you are considering using trade secret protection. Again, these will vary depending on the structure of the business, its operating procedures, and the type of technology it is based around but here are some of the general areas all business should be aware of:

  • Employees, if these employees have access to sensitive information that would benefit another party or their next venture. These employees don't necessarily have to be departing employees, they could very much be current employees. This is sometimes forgotten.
  • Cyber risks like hacking and malware if the company relies heavily on digital platforms for operation, communication, or recordal.
  • The risk of partners, suppliers, or contractors stealing any trade secrets they have access to for their own gain.
  • Industrial espionage being committed by competitors or even foreign governments.
  • The threat of operating internationally given the differences in legal and enforcement frameworks in different parts of the world.
  • Data breaches in terms of sensitive information (including prototypes, research data, or information on manufacturing processes) being stolen if it is stored or left without the required security with third-party service storage providers.

However - and perhaps predictably - the most damaging may be the risk of legal action.

If your trade secrets have not been adequately protected and managed, it will be significantly more difficult to prove your ownership if they are legally challenged. This could lead to you losing any claim to them. This could have a disastrous impact on your future plans. This is of increasing risk as the threshold for the burden of proof on the owner continues to rise.


The short answer is, for any trade secret, companies must take "all reasonable steps" to protect their trade secrets. This involves a combination of:

Administrative or organizational measures

For example, having robust trade secret policies and procedures in place and a formal education programme for employees.

Legal or contractual measures

For example, putting confidentiality agreements in place for those with access to the trade secrets, adding a non-compete clause or stronger provisions to the contract of those working with trade secrets.

Technical measures

For example, implementing more access controls and increasing security measures like encryption to make it more difficult for the trade secrets to be stolen.

However, the foundation of robust trade secret protection is forming a coherent trade secret policy. This might include:

  • Setting up a system for identifying and assessing trade secrets.
  • Creating a formal register of trade secrets.
  • Training staff on the need to maintain confidentiality.
  • Preventing the loss of confidential information with departing staff.
  • Ensuring that contracts and agreements discuss trade secrets, including ownership and obligations of confidentiality.

The word of caution we would offer is trade secrets are only one element of a fully formed IP strategy. Trade secrets will likely provide far greater protection when used in conjunction with rather than as an alternative to patents and designs.

Yes, your trade secrets will definitely help you secure investment, build value, and carve out the exclusivity your future success depends on, but in a multifaceted, highly competitive and fast developing sector like cleantech they will not do the job on their own. The key is to create a comprehensive IP strategy that incorporates overlapping, complementary, and comprehensive rights and policies.

This is exactly what the experienced attorneys and IP solicitors in our dedicate cleantech team do.

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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