With apologies to Charles Darwin, it might be said that when it comes to innovation, “those that learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively prevail”. Wangi Industrial certainly fits this description, actively innovating in-house and via collaborations with academic and industrial partners.Collaborations help to produce new products and services, thus expanding their company’s portfolio and strengthening its future revenue streams.
Wangi Industrial is an independent family business, established in 1968 with headquarters in Singapore and additional manufacturing facilities in China. Its transition is an interesting one: having started out as a traditional printer (of diaries), the business evolved to offer printing on plastic and metal in the 1980s and computer assembly in the 1990s. It was the loss of a key contract that then caused the company to move into the production of glass furniture, after participating in a trade mission to Europe. This change in direction gave the company its big break, as it coincided with Hewlett-Packard seeking suppliers of glass for its scanners and printers – which helped to put Wangi Industrial at the forefront of specialist glass provision.
Wangi Industrial’s current focus is on high-quality surface finishing, technical glass, precision optics and optical thin-film coating solutions. Its client sectors include computer peripherals, consumer digital, imaging, flat panel displays, point of sale equipment, ATMs, medical devices, analytical instruments and opto-electronics sectors.
Historically, Wangi Industrial sought new technology from its customers or traditional manufacturers of machines. However, neither side seemed keen to share knowledge nor did this result in a satisfactory flow of innovations. Accordingly, Wangi Industrial took the leap to share ideas, trade secrets and know-how by engaging with research institutes such as IMRE in Singapore.
Despite the potential gains, collaborations are often fraught with challenges, as the commercial partner funding such activities may not solely own the IP rights that result from them. The reduced control over future use and exploitation of such IP can cause downstream problems, which companies seek to anticipate and avoid by negotiating full ownership rights wherever possible.
Wangi Industrial sought to address this by taking time to understand the different objectives of its academic partners and negotiate bespoke academic/industry contracts for each collaboration.In some cases, where it was deemed that Wangi does not require exclusive rights to the collaboration outputs, it has taken the decision to allow its academic partners to take on sole responsibility of protecting and managing said IPs, with both parties retaining exploitation rights.
This allows Wangi to benefit from both expanding and protecting its product portfolio without putting excessive strain on its own financial and management resources, whilst maintaining first mover advantage, even though its academic partners could license the IP to a competitor.In other collaborations, sole ownership is obtained, where the innovation and its uses/markets is deemed worthy of negotiating exclusive rights.
Wangi Industrial call this its “collaborate and develop method”. The ideas and solutions to customer problems researched by way of collaborations are then further developed by Wangi industrial based on its engineering, manufacturing and marketing capabilities.Wangi Industrial has also created an in-house R&D department to oversee these collaborations with third parties.
Even when collaborating, it is still important to do your homework beforehand. As Ker Yee recalls, Wangi Industrial conducted a prior art search during its preparation for one research collaboration, “and found 12 patents which were pretty close to what we were wanting to research. We had to study them carefully to ensure we were not replicating or infringing other people’s property.There is no point doing something if someone else is already doing it, and, in particular, if they have protected it already - and all your money goes down the drain…”
Wangi Industrial has also filed for patent protection in its own right, for a variety of reasons. In one early case, it became important because the company became aware of a competitor working in a similar area, and wished to deter copycat products and head off possible future threats to its rights. However there were other motivations too: since market demand existed for the products, a patent provided a useful badge of origin. As Ker Yee puts it, “the reason we filed for a patent is that people were asking, ‘is this your technology?’”
This first foray into patenting also brought home to Wangi Industrial the importance of choosing the right patent agent.Their first meetings were drawn-out affairs, as they felt the adviser did not fully grasp their technology.The contrast became evident when the business was introduced to another patent agent who had the appropriate technology background; they helped the company to file a Singapore patent application initially, followed by an international (PCT) patent application within 12 months.