Capturing ideas at Air Liquide

02 October 2017

4iP Council speaks to Charlotta Ljungdahl, Vice-President for Group Intellectual Property at Air Liquide, to learn how this world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health innovates.

The world leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health, Air Liquide is present in 80 countries with approximately 65,000 employees and serves more than 3 million customers and patients. Oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen are essential small molecules for life, matter and energy. They embody Air Liquide’s scientific territory and have been at the core of the company’s activities since its creation in 1902.

Innovation is one of the pillars of the company’s strategy. Innovating enables Air Liquide to ensure its competitiveness, open up new markets and to create new growth opportunities.

Here, 4iP Council speaks to Charlotta Ljungdahl, Air Liquide’s Vice-President for Group Intellectual Property.

How does Air Liquide approach innovation and intellectual property management?

Air Liquide has a dynamic portfolio of over 10,000 patents and an innovation culture that is embedded in the company worldwide. We file a large number - around 300 - new patent applications a year that help us to keep our patent portfolios aligned with the business objectives.

About half of our invention disclosures come from our global R&D teams and the other half come from non R&D activities. It is very important for us, the global IP team, to develop our links within the businesses so that we encourage invention disclosures and thereby capture the group’s innovation. Whereas in the past our approach was mainly to innovate ‘from the inside out’, Air Liquide now has a strong ‘outside in’ approach. We look at new ways of performing open innovation such as teaming up with a large spectrum of partners and engaging in equity investments in start-up companies that have a promising technology in the making.

How does the Group encourage internal innovation?

Innovation is actively encouraged across the whole employee base through career paths focused on innovation, and recognition programmes which are organised with the engagement of our executive committee.

Our invention recognition programme, called #INVENT, has been used as a benchmark by other companies. I am very proud of this program as it was created and is led by the IP team. More than 2,000 rewards have been awarded to inventors employed at Air Liquide since 1997. The Group also has entrepreneurship awards to recognise entrepreneurial spirit across the company and HR programs to recognise technical expertise.

How does IP evolve, to assure that Air Liquide ensures it is in pole position to capture the latest market innovations?

The ‘outside in’ approach leads to more dynamic partnerships and partnership agreements. Bringing in existing innovation from start-ups, for example, makes for more complex IP allocations in partnerships. We’re now looking at shared models and this is normal, as the people we work with want a stake.

We want to be inspired by the external ecosystem and we find it is essential in today’s environment, to work with partners and customers to succeed in innovation.

We have a strong global IP team to support this evolution. A multi-faceted team of experts manages the IP aspects - patents, technology transactions, trademarks, copyright etc. - of an ‘open’ innovation landscape that has become much more complex in the past years. Our IP experts need to be with the business teams as well as with the R&D and innovation teams. In the IP team, naturally we want to be involved at the onset of a project, as we need to understand the end game early on in order to focus on what is important as well as spot red flags.

As any other company embarking on increasingly open innovation models would agree, there is much more risk in the ‘outside in’ approach because we are bringing in technologies that are not home grown. As we increasingly conquer new domains and technologies, our IP experts need to spend more time analysing IP centric risk.

How do you encourage invention reporting across all the countries where you operate?

One of our key activities is to build awareness, in order to assure that the people susceptible to innovate understand what is an ‘invention’. It is certain that having a patent attorney on-site in the field increases the quality and quantity of invention disclosures. People don’t always recognise when they have an invention because it is too obvious to them. It is up to us to help them recognise the uniqueness in what they have come up with, and that it can benefit the whole group if we channel their invention correctly.

In a more and more ‘online’ world, I still don't think anything can compete with face-to-face exchanges. The IP experts thus need to be where the business is, and where innovation takes place.

I set up our IP department in China a couple of years ago. We have a small team there but the return - as shown by the increase invention reporting for example - has been exponential thanks to the awareness raising and education undertaken by the local team, supported by their colleagues in our more mature IP teams in other geographies. I continue to be impressed at the powerful results of individuals working together across countries and cultures, in my team and also elsewhere in the group. Good tools are essential but it’s our people who really make the difference.

How is the Internet of Things impacting intellectual property management at Air Liquide?

A strategic focus for the Group is digital transformation. The Internet of Things is changing the way we look at our IP portfolio; we are exploring digital innovation and increasing our involvement in things that don’t just lend themselves to patenting but also to other IP rights - design, trademarks and copyright.

How do employees communicate their ideas internally?

We have an on-line global invention reporting portal that is managed by the IP department. Once an invention is reported, this starts an internal process driven by the subject matter expert patent attorneys who pull together the members of an invention review committee. It is important to convene the relevant people in these committees and have a broad, often transversal, review of inventions. I believe that in the future the committees will spend more time focusing not only on patent protection - which remains essential and primary of course - but also on other rights that might be relevant to protecting the invention.

Does the patent system hinder or help invention in your view?

People who are opposed to the patent often forget that it is an essential tool for sharing scientific progress and advancing the science globally. There is no contradiction between open innovation and the patent system. We find that patents are a way of opening markets and attracting partnerships. It is a shame that some people see the system in a negative way. Maybe it is because they are confronted with people who abuse the system. The system needs to be treated with respect.

What is your message to those who support dismantling the patent system?

There is always going to be one bad patent that sticks in someone’s mind, with the risk of clouding visibility of rest. This is why patent quality is so important. It is essential to ensure quality and with it the reputation of the system. Doing away with patenting would have unexpected effects. Patents are a means of technical communication and innovation and are often used to advance research. You can build on a patent without infringing it and that is often how innovation takes place.

What is your message to European policy makers seeking to encourage innovation?

It is important that policy makers listen to what they see as the ‘big companies’ to understand our patent strategies and gain a deeper understanding of our contribution to innovation. Most companies – us included - don’t have any interest in maintaining expensive patent portfolios for no particular reason, and only keep patents if they can see a return on investment.

What is your message to individual inventors?

IP is complicated so it is important to be vigilant. So much information is free of charge, along the whole spectrum of quality. Seek advice early on and take advantage of the services offered through the patent offices and other help desks to encourage the individual inventor. It is very unfortunate when an inventor discloses his/her ideas without first taking the proper measures to keep the option of protecting it via IP rights.

I believe it is important to have lower patent filing fees for independent inventors so they are not prevented from seeking protection of their invention. Care in the information exchange is also important: Large companies must be sensitive and respectful of the ideas that individual inventors bring to them, which sometimes means that we ask people who are bringing new confidential ideas not to disclose them to us at a too early stage.

No large company wants to be seen as the big bad wolf. We want to maintain the trust of potential partners, no matter what size, and encourage them to bring us good ideas. On the IP side, the way we can contribute to successful partnerships between the group and ‘small’ inventors, is to make sure that the expectations of each partner are understood, and that the future sharing of the results is fair to everyone.

Author: Emma Bluck

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.