Starman Patent

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Innovation securing jobs in UK and spur growth

Goring-based GB Electronics (UK) Ltd – GBE - lost business when its biggest overseas customer decided to start manufacturing products itself. This prompted managing director Mark Bullen to find a way to prevent anything similar happening again, by safeguarding ownership of the know-how and design of the company’s products. His company now has patents for electronic ‘smart boxes’ used in taxi fleet management and navigation systems, as well as design registration protection for its intelligent location-monitoring systems for blood supplies in hospitals.

“The protection we get from our patents and registered designs has helped to transform GBE from a local manufacturing sub-contractor into a valued partner to much bigger companies,” says Mark Bullen. “We now have a strong working relationship with major suppliers of advanced electronic equipment in the UK and major overseas markets. Our investment in developing and patenting our own technology has paid for itself many times over.”

In 2003 Mark Bullen joined the company his father Geoff had founded in 1988. After 15 years in business, it was performing well as a subcontractor, manufacturing products and electronic assemblies for a fairly wide range of customers. But without proprietary technology of their own, the company was vulnerable.

One of its main products was a mobile data communications terminal – a compact ‘black box’ used for data despatch in taxis. It could link a two-way radio with a portable navigation system and a taxi fleet’s computer-based despatch system at the control centre. GBE does not sell direct to end-users. Its customer was the UK subsidiary of a group based overseas, where the management were looking for ways to reduce costs. As GBE did not own the rights to the product design, there was little they could do when their customer decided to transfer the production to one of its own factories abroad.

“Although the loss of that business was a blow at the time,” explains Mark Bullen, “It did make us realise that we needed not only to have protected technology of our own, but also to develop a different kind of relationship with our customers. Winning business on the basis of offering the lowest price wasn’t going to lead to profitable growth.”

GBE invested in building up its own design team. It is now seven strong and includes two postgraduate students from the nearby University of Brighton. With this renewed emphasis on product design, it enabled GBE to align their business strategy with developments in the market and become more proactive in their response to changes in technology. They invested time, effort and a quarter of a million pounds in developing a new generation of technology that would improve taxi fleets’ operating efficiency and functionality. They also took steps to protect such a major investment.

“We got in touch with a firm of patent attorneys, Harrison Goddard Foote, while we were still at the concept stage - well before we started manufacturing the new product,” says Mark Bullen. “One of the firm’s partners, Matt Dixon, came and gave a very helpful talk to our design team about developing an intellectual property strategy. He showed a good understanding of what we were trying to achieve technically, but also made us think very hard about our commercial priorities. That was invaluable in deciding what types of IP protection would be most appropriate and what proportion of our projected income it would make sense to invest in IP protection.”


From taxi fleets to blood supplies

With a clear strategic approach to innovation and intellectual property, GBE had the confidence to look at other markets. Another one of the company’s major product, BloodTrack®, also uses data tracking principles but, instead of sending despatch messages to taxis, it forms part of a system that is improving efficiency and healthcare standards in hospitals.

The system ensures that blood supplies are kept in secure refrigerated cabinets, accessible only by authorised medical staff.  Each blood bag is identified with a unique barcode. Hospital patients are given wristbands with a barcode containing important medical information, including blood type. Doctors use portable hand-held devices and barcode scanners to record patient data and to order blood supplies. These can then be delivered to the right place and administered to the correct patient. A highly secure data network, with checks at every stage, dramatically reduces the risk of patients accidentally being given the wrong blood type.

Another major impact is that the system significantly reduces waste through its improved control and allocation of blood products and efficient stock control. A study at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford – one of the pilot sites – showed that the cost of buying and installing the system was recouped in less than three years, through savings made in reducing blood product wastage.

Patent attorneys Harrison Goddard Foote helped Mark Bullen to achieve greater protection for the latest BloodTrack Kiosk by protecting its distinctive appearance by registering it as a design. The Kiosk has also successfully passed all relevant electrical safety standards for medical equipment, allowing it to be sold in major markets worldwide.

The BloodTrack Courier system is now in use in over 190 hospitals, of which 140 are in the UK and 30 in the USA. GBE is part way through rolling out the product for the Irish Health Service Executive, which will lead to all the hospitals in the Republic having the BloodTrack system installed.

The way ahead

According to Mark Bullen, GBE is now in a much better position to achieve profitable growth. “Having our own proprietary technology has put us on a much stronger footing with our customers,” he says. “They know we have patents and registered designs and that gives us greater credibility. They now discuss their product design and development needs with us. We have moved on from being seen as a local manufacturing subcontractor. Our patented technology acts as a good platform for us to rapidly develop new technologies in response to market needs.”

The company is busy developing new products and designs, most of which it intends to continue to manufacture locally, using UK-sourced components. However, the company has started to outsource some specialist manufacturing to China. GBE’s product offering now includes a specially designed smart phone, branded as the ‘Auriga Drive 360° Eclipse’. The sleek-looking handset’s touch screen enables one-touch toggling between a satellite navigation system and the fleet’s despatch system. Although the handset itself is partly manufactured in China, GBE has developed the firmware needed to make it function and that is added at the company’s premises in Goring-by-Sea.

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