While many business are innovative in their own right, Minesoft are somewhat unusual in that their business is also fundamentally all about the innovation of others. They’re a global patent solutions provider, providing online products and services for patent research, archiving and intelligence, and intellectual property document retrieval. The business provides information to Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies around the world, and to specialist IP, patent attorney and search firms.
“The subject is absolutely fascinating,” enthuses managing director Ann Chapman-Daniel, who set up the business in 1996 with her husband, Ophir Daniel. “Patents describe all the tiny innovations. A mobile phone might have 200 or 300 patents and a car would have thousands. A document can be three pages long for the teat of a baby bottle, an electronic circuit board drawing will typically be twenty to thirty pages, and the chemical structures for a pharmaceutical patent can be thousands of pages.”
She describes patents as “the best source” of research and development information. “Scientific journals are OK but the engineers driving invention prefer patent literature because it's a source of information about what others have already done and what answers they have already come up with. It’s not all about new inventions," she says. "Patents are a great way of watching to see what's going to happen in the next couple of years because an application has to be submitted before anyone could even talk about it at a conference.”
She’s not talking about plagiarism, she’s quick to add. "Licensing of patents is big business; for example, even though you have Apple and Samsung competing head on and fighting over patents, they are cross-licensing each other's patents all the time. It's an example of businesses both competing and co-operating. Our business is about taking that data, making it available across languages.”
"We've been very lucky: we can go in one direction and if something else comes up that's interesting and give us a competitive edge, we can snap our fingers and say, 'Let's do that instead'."
But Minesoft is also innovative in its own right. “When we first started we developed the infrastructure for one of the first trademark search platforms for what is now a competitor. And having developed business information systems for other companies we decided we were more interested in the patent business, so the nature of the business changed.
“Our people are very inquisitive. My husband won’t go to bed until he has solved a problem and if he doesn't have a problem he's not happy! And that attitude filters down to the rest of the team. The other programmers get that attitude and the fact that the business is quite small means that is easy for us all to interact.”
The company now has the resource required, but it wasn't always that way. "I remember someone at a conference the saying they'd tried to work out how many people we had working on this,” says Chapman-Daniel, “and they thought it must be at least fifty. Actually it was my husband working eighteen-hour days for six months!”
Early on, Minesoft worked with translation specialist RWS Group to develop PatBase, a searchable database of patent documents that now has more than 50,000 users worldwide. It later added a facility that allows searches in non-Latin languages such as Chinese and Japanese. By 2014 the system was available with a choice of seven language interfaces. Other innovations have included a variety of additional products to provide all kinds of patent and trademark related IP documentation from around the world.
In 2009, and again in 2015, Minesoft won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for achievement in export markets in the field of IP, the second time largely thanks to its PatBase Analytics, which gives insights into global patenting trends.
Minesoft keep their databases on servers in two locations, with “everything encrypted and locked down,” and use cloud storage only for their own data.
The business has also made PatBase available at a reduced cost to researchers in poorer countries so they can develop and implement their own intellectual property strategy and find out about the latest technological developments worldwide.
"We are always looking to innovate and to make new tools available to enable users to delve into information more deeply, to offer more meaningful analytics, new ways to get hold of litigation information"
There's plenty of competition, says Chapman-Daniel, who studied business, economics and German at university. "There are companies which compete with us in everything we do, but they can't copy the actual code, even though the software is not patentable - you can patent software in the US but not in Europe where software is covered by copyright.”
She thinks that's fair enough. "You can't stifle development," she says, adding that because it’s small and has always been profitable, the business can move swiftly. "We are only answerable to ourselves," she says. "We've been very lucky: we can go in one direction and if something else comes up that’s interesting and will give us a competitive edge we can snap our fingers and say ‘let's do that instead’.
"We are always looking to innovate and to make new tools available to enable users to delve into information more deeply, to offer more meaningful analytics, new ways to get hold of litigation information.”
She points out that internet search engines could not produce the same targeted results. “There might be hundreds of thousands of documents that match a search strategy. Google couldn't handle it. They only show the first 100,000.”
But users of PatBase see the lot. There are more than 100million documents available and that is growing every week by 60,000, which equates to the number of patent applications. China alone registers about two million patents per year. "The numbers are phenomenal," she says.
Some of the ideas for extensions to the original idea have come from collaborations with the (often blue-chip) customers. Chapman-Daniel says they have good relationships with even very big clients because the patents function is usually fairly small. “Even multinational corporate will have a relatively small number of people in the patents and legal departments because it's quite a niche area.”
"This is a very innovative area and one that has a big future."
Meanwhile, she believes the UK government could do much more to help businesses by funding patent processes and searches. "We would be able to achieve an awful lot if they copied Germany, Japan, and China,” says Chapman-Daniel. “Their governments really encourage patents and have regional funding hubs, rather like what Business Link used to be for general business advice. What they did in Germany was set up networks of centres funded by government and available to do low-cost searches for small and medium businesses. They're very hot in that sector.”
“That is sadly missing in the UK. We do have a few patent libraries and technology transfer centres, but they tend to be associated with universities. This is a very innovative area and one that has a big future, but we're coming from behind. Government could give innovation a massive push by funding the whole patent area.”