Julian Nolan, pioneering data-driven invention

19 February 2018

“It seemed strange to me that in such a data-driven world invention should be analogue, so I began to explore ways to create using data and algorithms.“

Julian Nolan is the founder and CEO of Swiss and UK-based start-up Iprova, a company that uses advanced machine learning and other technologies to create commercially relevant inventions. By adopting a hybrid part human part machine based approach to invention, Iprova’s AI based software allows its cohort of invention developers to rapidly create commercially relevant inventions across diverse yet converging areas.

Before starting Iprova, Julian, whose background is in electrical engineering and machine learning, was Vice President of Licensing for Honeywell in Europe. He has also worked at the Central Research Laboratories of EMI Music in London in the role of Business Development Director.

Here we talk to Julian about what Iprova does and how creativity could be encouraged. Iprova is a long-standing supporter of 4iP Council’s research work.

How does Iprova’s approach to invention work?

Iprova delivers inventions in a way which is both fast and agile. We first work with our customers to help define an area in which they would like to create inventions – this may, for example, be based around a business strategy or product roadmap. We then deliver the first group of inventions two weeks later, and then iteratively at agreed intervals of one or two weeks. The focus area of invention may be updated at any time throughout the invention stream. Our customers are free to accept or reject inventions from those we provide at their discretion – for accepted inventions, we provide an Invention Disclosure which integrates with their existing patent filing processes.

Our business model has both fixed and contingent elements, meaning that we are confident in our ability to deliver inventions which are so compelling our customers will choose to accept them. This is a big departure from the traditional “sunk cost” model of research, where typically large investments are made a long time before the results are known.

What are the main advantages of this approach over traditional methods?

Iprova’s data-driven approach enables two key advantages – diversity, and timing.

Traditional invention typically relies on the capacity of subject-matter specialists to unearth new ideas across a very narrow field of view. Our software allows us to take a massively wide-angle view across a broad spectrum of science, technology and social developments. Taking this wide-angle view, we can identify a diverse range of inventive elements. Such diversity of inputs has a direct impact on the diversity of the inventions we can produce, meaning that we have a much better chance of creating disruptive and commercially relevant inventions for our customers.

However, timing is everything in invention, and all diversity or other advantage is lost if a competitor is able to create a new and disruptive invention before you do. That is why our second key advantage, timing, is critical. Our timing advantage has two factors – the first relates to an improved prospect of inventing first. The second factor relates to our agility and speed, which allows us to present our first inventions to a customer within two weeks of the beginning of a project.

All of this is enabled by our data-driven invention process, which gives us the tools to create valuable new products and services on a timescale that matches the business needs of our customers. Our inventions are additive to those coming from our customer’s R&D teams, increasing their agility in a dynamic and evolving business landscape.

How did Iprova come about?

It seemed strange to me that in such a data-driven world invention should be analogue, so I began to explore ways that data and algorithms could be used to transform the way inventions are created. Part of the inspiration for the Iprova concept was the idea that data could be used to create inventions that were complementary and additive to the industry-specific inventions that companies tend to produce. Rather than trying to compete with their R&D departments, algorithms could be used to help these companies invent faster and better than ever before.

Is there a particular focus to what Iprova does?

Our focus is physical science and within this area, the range of work we do is very wide. We have addressed areas as diverse as infant nutrition, healthcare, autonomous vehicles, mobile devices, consumer electronics and education. We live in a world which is increasingly converging, and Iprova creates inventions in the important uncharted spaces between converging industries. An invention that typifies this focus is our development of inventions which enable healthcare services to be deployed within an autonomous vehicle. Iprova has invented a technique to harness the motion of these vehicles to carry out a number of health checks on passengers, monitoring posture, muscle tone and other factors.

You can find more examples of Iprova inventions here.

What insights has your work given you about the invention process?

To have a data-driven process you have to understand what invention is. If you ask an inventor how he or she came up with an idea they often refer to a lightbulb moment. We have spent a lot of time analysing how good ideas come about. We understand the science behind the lightbulb moment.

Where do you think policy makers should focus their attention to improve innovation in Europe?

Policy makers should be open to approaches that reflect technological change and market advances – and constantly evolving business needs.

We need to look at the way we educate. Invention generally isn’t taught in schools and universities, and for a somewhat valid reason – it is hard to teach. But what we can do is encourage educators to augment the current mode of feeding students knowledge, with teaching them how to think, encouraging creativity, inventiveness and curiosity. These are the types of skills that Iprova values in its Invention Developers – the team who work closely with our software to create inventions.

How would you like to see support for inventors in Europe evolve?

I think it’s important that the creative contribution of inventors to society is more widely recognised. In general, the inventors of many important technologies are not widely recognised or rewarded in the course of their work – in stark contrast to individuals involved in many other creative endeavours. Of course, this is not an easy problem to solve, as inventors are often invisible to the world at large and relatively few inventions ever achieve widespread success. Nevertheless, for those inventions which do become popular a fair and transparent way is needed to recognise the engineering, scientific and creative talent of the associated inventor.

How could the patent system be improved?

I think it’s important that engineers and scientists gain recognition for their creative achievements at a level which is comparable with other creative pursuits – for example, music or literature. At the same time however, companies need to be able to access technology in a fair and transparent way which avoids distortions in the patent licensing process. The patent system needs to navigate a way through these needs whilst also reflecting the massive technological and structural changes which have occurred since its introduction over 200 years ago.

What advice would you offer an inventor?

There are opportunities for invention wherever you look. Be curious and never stop trying to improve the products of today with the likely technological advances of tomorrow.

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.