By Trevor Baylis OBE
We can be proud of the long list of inventions that hail from these islands: the steam engine, railways, steel production, the electric motor, radio, computers, antibiotics, radar, DNA research, industrial automation and the worldwide web have all have their roots in pioneering British work. A Japanese survey once found that 56 per cent of the world's greatest inventions come from these shores.
Since we have ceased to be a manufacturing nation, our most valuable export potential lies in intellectual property. But we have become complacent. By all accounts, we are losing £150 billion a year to our overseas competitors because of our inability to exploit home-grown inventions and innovations. We need to wake up. Failure to gain reward from intellectual property is letting our national lifeblood drain away. It is a valuable commodity that must be treasured for the precious natural resource it is.
This nation has to take its inventors seriously along with the intellectual property they create - they are our crown jewels. We must publicise them, promote them and reward them.
The education system has a big part to play. If you can teach art, you can teach invention. Problem analysis and structured methods have become common in business training in the past 20 years, but have not trickled down into the schools at all. Invention needs to be included in the national curriculum. Chance favours the prepared mind and if you teach children how to solve problems they will be better equipped for life. Science and technology would be a lot more exciting if children were taught about the history of invention: from flint stone to silicon chips and how invention has changed all our lives both commercially and socially. It would also make them aware that there is an invention in all of us.
Education can also help overcome the image problem inventors have. Not all inventors are 'characters' with a Viennese accent, spectacles, and a shabby suit. Neither are they all male. Kevlar, a material used in bullet proof vests and combat clothing, was invented by Stephanie Kwolek. The Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr patented a frequency switching device system for torpedo guidance. One of the earliest computer developers was a woman named Ada Lovelace. In the early 19th century she collaborated with the renowned mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage on the 'differential machine'. Though never finished, it is recognised today as one of the earliest computers.
We also need to provide a better framework for companies to interact with inventors who are working on their own. Many large companies refuse to sign confidentiality agreements. But no inventor should reveal his ideas unless such an agreement is signed. Companies must know that they have to encourage new ideas if they are going to prosper and grow in the difficult and competitive world of business today.
The UK Patent Office is doing a great job helping applications from private individuals, and we need to encourage more people to take up their services. My own company, Baylis Brands, has been very successful in helping inventors take their products to market. Both these organisations have helped to expedite the creative process in developing new ideas and inventions, and have done this in complete confidentiality.
The exploitation and theft of inventions is another area that the government has started to try to eradicate. They have shut down a few 'Inventor Brokers' whose advice and services are worthless, and their sole aim is finding a new idea that is commercial, and in effect, stealing it from its owner. I feel very strongly that this should be a criminal offense.
Finally, it is important to protect the inventor from being written out of the equation when the money starts coming in if his invention has been successful. Finding a route to market is the final and most crucial part of the process and it is where many a good idea founders.
If Britain is to continue to be the powerhouse of ideas it has always been in past centuries, it must wake up to the importance of nurturing and conserving its intellectual property, and treat its inventors like gold because this is ultimately what they bring into the exchequer and we are all made richer because of this.
Trevor Baylis OBE is an inventor best known for his wind-up radio, which he invented to help communicate information about AIDS to the people of Africa. He runs Trevor Baylis Brands plc, a company dedicated to helping inventors to develop and protect their ideas and to find a route to market.
Trevor will be speaking tonight at "Innovating for Success: How to Create the Next Generation of British World Beating Companies", which is part of the Switched On series of talks and debates from Intelligence Squared, supported by Shell. Click here to watch the free live-stream from 6.30pm-8pm.