The following case study is based on the assessment of Naomi Korn Associates Ltd and Mathys & Squire Consulting at the time it was produced (November 2021). The contents should not be considered legal advice. If such legal advice is required, the opinion of a suitably qualified legal professional should be sought.  

The following case study has been taken from the “Implications of Covid-19 on SMEs – Reassessing the Role of IP in Multiple Sectors and Industries” report written by Naomi Korn Associates and Mathys & Squire Consulting, November 2021.

This case study reviews the impact on SMEs (small, medium enterprises) of the COVID-19 pandemic since its appearance in early 2020 through the first quarter of 2021. It focuses on the industries most affected by the crisis and whether intellectual property (IP) and IP management may have helped mitigate its impact through adaptation and change. 

Sector overview: 

During the pandemic, social distancing, and a reluctance to use public transport, resulted in a rise in the use of alternative modes of travel. This has included e-bike hire schemes, such as Lime, and ride sharing platforms like Uber. 

Analysis:

The pandemic has caused a further shift in the wider mobility market with many companies in this space making significant strategic changes towards ACES (autonomous driving, connected cars, electrified vehicles, and shared mobility[1]). Worldwide, there have been more than 420 partnerships signed and the space has seen significant investment, with startups offering mobility technologies receiving $45 billion in 2020 alone. 

Micro mobility modes of transport, including lightweight options such as bicycles, e-scooters, and mopeds have grown significantly during this period, whilst the roll out and investment in autonomous vehicle technology has continued to grow during the crisis and is likely to help in the economic rebound post COVID-19[2]. This technological shift has resulted in the redefining of car lanes to fit more bikes, scooters, and even autonomous vehicles[3], as well as government incentives across the globe advocating the use of low-carbon transport modes. Companies such as German Colivery, arising from the Government and Vodafone backed “Wir Versus Virus” Hackathon, have developed an online shopping experience connecting self-isolating people with volunteer delivery drivers, who use software optimised routing and several shopping lists on the same route to ensure maximum efficiency[4].  

A number of companies have also developed e-scooters, including UK based company Ginger, which with the help of Enterprise Europe Network, trialled the scooters in a number of cities in the north of England. Ginger also took advantage of coronavirus-related loans and grants. Several other companies internationally, such as the US-based companies Lime and Bird, have large patent portfolios, which we can expect to see grow over the coming months. With the growth of this market, and the increased demand for this technology, businesses are likely to carve a niche for themselves, seeking to protect their position and their brand through enforceable IP rights, such as patents and trade marks.    

The transport sector has clearly demonstrated their IP and its application through joining the Open Covid Pledge. Companies such as Uber, have offered patents relating to safe routes for navigation systems, and real-time resource management, to companies trying to combat COVID-19 through royalty free licences. AT&T have also engaged in the pledge through offering their IP relating to the reduction in travel time of emergency transport. 

Localised travel restrictions and fear of infection have increased the interest in private vehicle ownership, with a recent McKinsey study indicating that approximately a third of consumers value access to a private vehicle compared to pre-COVID-19. In the United States, 20% of people who did not own a vehicle prior to COVID-19 are now considering acquiring one. 

In addition to this, the pandemic has raised awareness of the human involvement in the logistics industry and has sparked interest in the likely need for self-driving vehicles moving forward. In this context, autonomous vehicles, and autonomous driving technology also saw a substantial push in 2020, partially due to their ability to reduce the risk of infection and avoid physical contact. 

The autonomous delivery company NURO, was given permission in the US to operate its vehicles on public roads, accelerating grocery deliveries. NURO has also adapted its vehicles to serve in supplying local COVID-19 hospitals with much needed supplies. NURO, which already had a large portfolio of over 30 patents, has recently partnered with Domino’s Pizza to provide autonomous vehicle pizza deliveries[5], and we can expect this growth to continue as many of the new innovations arising during the pandemic are protected and published. UK-based Oxbotica, an autonomous driving spinout from Oxford University, notes the potential for autonomous vehicle technology in reducing the spread of the virus, but also for longer term benefits in areas such as mining, port logistics and other industrial applications. As a result of its impact in reducing the spread of the virus, the demand for low speed autonomous driving technology, such as Baidu’s Apollo, is increasing. To support frontline workers in China, the company has made its Apollo open-source autonomous driving platform and related patents available to companies developing vehicles for carrying out disinfection tasks. By growing its network of companies using its AI heavy IP portfolio, currently most of which is through open licensing arrangements, the company is generating an ecosystem of businesses using its technology to fight the pandemic, while at the same time creating a situation whereby its patent portfolio becomes the standard across a number of fields[6].

Across the transport sector, electric vehicles, e-scooters and autonomous vehicles offer novel solutions to the problems created during the pandemic, not only in terms of potentially reducing the transmission rate of the virus, but also issues surrounding logistics and cargo transport, where ill staff may seriously affect the ability of these sectors to operate. 

Lessons Learnt

An open approach to IP and business strategy not only allows SMEs to create products and services to fight the pandemic and enhance their public image, but also enables the growth of audiences and markets.

Naomi Korn Associates would be delighted to carry out an IP health check for your organisation. For more information please contact us.

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[1] (McKinsey & Company, 2020, pp. From no mobility to future mobility: Where COVID-19 has accelerated change, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/from-no-mobility-to-future-mobility-where-covid-19-has-accelerated-change)

[2] (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020, pp. The circular economy: a transformative Covid-19 recovery strategy)

[3] (Refraction AI, 2021, p. https://refraction.ai/)

[4] Vodafone (2020): Hacking the coronavirus with German engineering, https://www.vodafone.com/news/digital-society/hacking-the-coronavirus-with-german-engineering

[5] Pockross, Adam (2021): STRAIGHT OUTTA THE ’80S, THE NOID IS BACK, AND NO AUTONOMOUS DOMINO’S PIZZA DELIVERY VEHICLE IS SAFE, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/dominos-the-noid-is-back

[6] LiangVictor (2020): Baidu’s AI-related patented technologies: Doing battle with COVID-19, https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2020/02/article_0003.html