Millions lost on patent

July 17, 1998

SOUTHAMPTON University has lost out on hundreds of millions of pounds in royalties on a breakthrough optical fibre technology because of loose patenting and lack of commercial nous.

The technology is virtually a standard feature of fibre-optic cable worldwide. Southampton researchers, based at its Optoelectronics Research Centre, discovered in the mid-1980s that inserting the element erbium into the fibre every 100 kilometres allowed the light signals to be boosted, vastly increasing the rate of information throughput.

Roger Ashby, managing director of the university's technology transfer arm, Southampton Innovations Ltd, pointed to the recent sale of a United States telecommunication components company for nearly $8 billion. Mr Ashby said much of the company's seed technology could be traced back to the work of ORC. "There is nothing criminal about what the company has done in the real sense. We cannot claim to have been misled by anyone. What is really sad is that the patents were not strong enough to protect us."

Mr Ashby, brought in by the university to form SIL two years ago, said the original patent was "probably taken out with a lot of naivety," but pointed out that in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, Southampton, like many other universities, was ill-equipped to handle the development. "There was not as great a pressure as there has been in recent years for universities to be commercially minded."

Mr Ashby said that the university has explored with technology transfer specialist BTG the possibility of defending the patent. "The general consensus was that we would make lawyers rich and come out with very little."

He estimates that to date the university has lost out on around $500,000 in royalties on the technology.

David Payne, director of the ORC, said of the missed opportunity: "It is a great loss for the country. The technology is widely considered to be the most important advance in optical fibre technology since the development of the fibre itself, radically branching it out into new directions." He still hopes that some compensation may be forthcoming but admits this is unlikely.

According to Professor Payne, there are now between 20 and 30 manufacturers of optical amplifiers worldwide and 80 million kilometres of fibre has been laid down for land and transatlantic communication. It is a "sad fact", he says, that there are no British manufacturers involved.

While he admits the patents could have been stronger, Professor Payne also blames "squabbling" among major telecommunications companies which collaborated with Southampton on the government-backed project. "By the time the difficulties were resolved it was too late, other firms had raced ahead," he said.

The ORC, one the biggest research centres of its kind in the world, continues to develop potentially breakthrough technologies on the back of the optical amplifier. Patents are being taken out on other ORC technologies. Mr Ashby said: "Patenting can be an expensive business and no university can afford to patent everything that comes in through the door. Nevertheless, if you have not got the appetite to spend Pounds 100,000-Pounds 150,000 to do it properly there is no point spending Pounds 6,000 in the first stages of the process."

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