Registering IP rights is viewed by many start-ups as a costly business and many are tempted to ‘put it off’. However, going public with your idea or product can be detrimental if someone steals your idea before you have protected it. Hegen’s experiences demonstrate how important it is for young companies to protect their IP so that they can take action against copycats.
Companies sometimes question whether intellectual property protection is necessary, as it can be expensive—the money could be spent on another product or employee, for example. Hegen had some of the same thoughts at the outset, as Hegen’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer Yvon Bock shares:
“At an early stage, we wondered whether securing registered IP rights was a worthwhile investment. But as we have progressed, we have found that our registered designs, coupled with our patents and registered trade marks, have become a very good and powerful tool for our product enforcement”.
Hegen was established to create sustainable, innovative and high-quality products for the nursing mother. The company’s multi-functional ‘express-store-feed’ approach led it to design unique, award-winning square containers with interchangeable lids. These have multiple uses, allowing it to be a breast pump, feeding bottle or milk storage container simply by interchanging the different lids to meet the needs of the user.
The containers’ square shape is both distinctive and highly functional. As well as being easier and more secure to hold (for a baby or a grandparent), it has a one-handed press-to-close action and a twist-to-open lid, with an off-centre teat to allow more upright feeding. It is also stackable and easy to clean, which is a bonus for any busy parent. The products are made from high-quality, safe and sustainable material that can be converted to storage containers for everyday use after a baby is past bottle feeding.
Yvon Bock established Hegen in 2015 after several years’ work developing the initial concept and designs. However, before the company had launched its first product or filed for any IP protection, Yvon was shocked to find that its design had been leaked and an identical copy was already placed on the market.
“This copy was definitely not independently created—it was derived from a leak of our innovation”.
This discovery of a copycat was a significant blow, given all the time and effort spent on the design (which had been well received). It left Hegen with a dilemma.
“Instead of seeking to fight this case, we re-evaluated internally: were there too many steps ahead? Would it be better to chase, or to go back to the drawing board?”
As the company had not formally launched its product or spent money on branding or patenting, it decided not to pursue the copycat. Instead, as Yvon puts it, this experience forced the company’s design team “to really think outside of the box”. This is the point at which they decided to re-invent the conventional round bottle and replace it with a square-round (sqround) multi-functional container.
“Our philosophy is that everything happens for a reason. No matter if it’s good or bad, we always try to take it positively and use it to reflect on how we can face such challenges and do better. This is why we have a story to share: we hope that we can assist other fellow companies to find solutions, so they don’t have to go through so much learning on the job!”
Hegen has now invested time and effort to secure IP rights, including patents, registered designs and registered trade marks. The company also follows a strategy to secure IP rights in all territories in which it intends to sell (or manufacture) its products. Hegen has now secured IP rights globally. At the same time, it has also secured social media ‘handles’ and domain names.
“As we are a very design-led company, we focus a lot on designs with technical features that are patentable or aspects that are revolutionary. Design registrations and patent filings are equally important to make sure that once our products are ready, the markets are also ready for us.”
Obtaining multiple IP rights, such as having both a registered design and patent protection, can be helpful. While it may be cheaper and quicker to enforce a design registration as compared to a patent, Hegen’s IP rights are not there just to dissuade people from copying their products or to facilitate IP enforcement. They state that they “are using IP to make sure that when people buy from Hegen, they know they are buying a product that is very safe and quality assured. After all, we are dealing with babies.”
The company took particular care with its branding and trade mark strategy.
“‘Hegen’ is an old German word with the direct translation “cherish”, as in ‘hegen und pflegen’—which means, to care for deeply, to nurture and to grow – it’s always giving back in your own way. This is what Hegen wants to do.”
As a company that operates in a highly competitive market, Hegen has encountered several copycats, including exact replicas of its products. “Some people copy our patented technology. Others copy all the way down to our marketing collaterals.” Although this practice is clearly detrimental to our business, Yvon is philosophical about the risks:
“If we develop a good product or a good brand, somehow we get our affirmation when we catch attention from the competition.”
Hegen has found that these copycats will often show themselves at trade shows that Hegen chooses not to attend, and will try to launch copycat products in lesser-known markets. Sometimes, the company may not find out about the infringement until after the show has ended. Yvon is keen to point out how important it is for companies to do their homework before attending a show.
“The international trade shows in which we participate take exhibitor IP very seriously. We choose our trade shows carefully, and pick ones that are reputable and takes a firm stand in IP protection.”
As a first step, it is important to establish what rights have actually been infringed. For example, whether a registered trade mark has been used without permission or a technical feature protected by a patent has been copied. Yvon is clear that as a start-up business, it is important to get help to monitor for copycats or potential infringers, both at home and abroad.
“Our overseas partners, distributors, our key retailers, even our competitors that become friends, are our eyes in our markets. We often get to know about copies, rip-offs or ‘similar-offs’ through them”
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