Like many other firms in Singapore, Joseph Lum has a background in contract manufacturing for multinational corporations — in his case, specialising in injection moulding. Now, in NSP Tech, he runs an IP-led, product-based business whose lancet (for safe and painless blood prick tests and blood sampling) has won multiple innovation awards, and is now selling globally.
About 18 years ago, Joseph was asked to assist a company with an existing lancet design that was encountering a number of production issues. Whilst these weren't too difficult to rectify, Joseph noted that the company was receiving a lot of complaints from the product's customers, mainly related to its pre-arming design and the fact that it was painful to use. Joseph decided to work on a solution that addressed these complaints and also reduced the device's size.
NSP is now making version four of its lancet, whose quality and innovation has brought the company four different awards in 2016, including the World Intellectual Property Organisation Enterprise Trophy, Intellectual Property of Singapore Patent Technology award, President's Design Award and the Unity Best Product Award (for the second year running).
The big idea — or, in IP terms, the key inventive step — Joseph had with his compact design lies in its use of a rotational mechanism to drive the lancet with the speed and precision needed to minimise pain. This benefit is much appreciated, especially by people who have to obtain blood samples regularly, such as diabetes sufferers.
Clearly, it was important for NSP to protect this invention, but given that a lancet is a disposable commodity product, the main priority in Joseph's mind was to make sure no-one had already used his approach before. "If you want to be in the medical industry, you need to be very sure that your product is not infringing, in order to give consistent supply to the market."
Joseph's patent agent advised him to undertake freedom to operate searches, which are now used with all his new products to obtain reassurance that these do not infringe anyone.
"We supply to one of the largest medical device distributor in the US: how can you afford to give them a product that may infringe someone? You have to give them peace of mind."
Having filed for and obtained patent protection, NSP has also obtained trade marks for the product name, SAFETiCET™ on the basis that "we don't want another product with a similar name coming onto the market and confusing our customers."
Joseph had no previous knowledge or experience of patenting, and says he has learned a lot. As an example, even with diligent searching of published and granted patents, he recognizes that the IP system can't provide a 100% guarantee that the company does not infringe anyone else (not least because patent applications generally remain secret for 18 months before publication). He admits this is a bit frustrating: "We spend a lot of money on developing, prototyping, manufacturing… what if at this stage it is found to be infringing? It can be difficult to pull through with all these costs to manage."
On the basis that lancets sell worldwide, NSP initially filed for patent protection in a lot of different territories. "I patented in seventeen countries, which was very costly. Later I found out that even the multinationals don't patent in every single country where they trade! Now we are much more selective on which territories to protect — we have patented a second invention and only selected key markets."
Naturally, with a popular and widely used invention, it's likely to attract imitators. The company understands that this is hard to stop — "When people copy your product, it means that your product is good" — but believe that people who copy won't understand how the mechanism works in detail, and so may struggle to compete on quality.
Joseph also takes comfort that the patent gives a future opportunity to do something about this problem if needed.
"My lawyers advise me that the enforcement process can be pretty expensive. But if an infringer can copy well, we might partner or collaborate with them or license to them rather than sue them."
As Joseph explains, "This lancet has brought us a lot of opportunities. If we have the finance, I can see that we have the potential to grow into a $100m company".
In this context, NSP Tech is one of the first to benefit from Singapore's IP financing scheme. "In medtech, you need a lot of upfront investment in order to really scale up. A lot of funds are interested in investing in NSP, but we can't take their money yet, because our business isn't mature enough. IP financing is very important to help us to grow.'
NSP is also investing in new developments. In order to be able to meet the demand of different products for blood collection products, the company has now developed a ‘heel stick' that has a slicing rather than pricking action.
Joseph is also looking at solutions for drug delivery that can avoid cross-contamination. However, being ‘IP savvy', he is keeping tight-lipped about those at present until demand is confirmed — and patents are filed.