Meet Tim Stirrup, UniServices Intellectual Property Advisor

UniServices helps to identify, protect and commercialise the University of Auckland’s intellectual property, ranked in the top 150 of all universities worldwide. A reflection of the scale and quality of the University’s research, in the last six years we have tallied 821 invention disclosures, and 395 patent licenses. 

Our team of expert intellectual property advisors works with researchers to help their intellectual property reach an industry ready stage, so that innovations like new drug therapies can be supported to reach the hands of the people and communities who can benefit from it. 

Read on to learn more about UniServices Intellectual Property Advisor Tim Stirrup and the advice he has for researchers on how to protect and develop their work. 

First up, can you tell us what your role as an Intellectual Property Advisor involves?

My role is to primarily to help protect new inventions and research coming out of the University using Intellectual Property rights and agreements. This involves managing the biotech and chemistry part of the University’s patent portfolio.  I also provide advice to staff on legal, IP and commercial matters.  

I am part of the Commercialisation team which assesses and commercialises new research ideas coming from the University of Auckland. I also work with the Business Development team and Contracts team at UniServices on IP topics as diverse as new apps, to questions on mātauranga Māori in contracts, grants and research projects. 

What led you to this line of work and to UniServices?

I’ve always had a keen interest in Science and a thirst for knowledge. I studied Natural Sciences (specialising in Chemistry) at the University of Bath in the UK, then followed this up with a PhD focused on molecular biology at the University of Southampton in the UK.  

I was lucky enough to move to New Zealand as a Post-doc Researcher at the Liggins Institute before taking a leap to a new career in Intellectual Property.  This involved retraining as a trainee patent attorney at a top-tier IP law firm in New Zealand.  In this patent attorney role I really learned the importance of professionalism and attention to detail.  I worked with many NZ and overseas clients seeking to protect and commercialise their new technology, and occasionally challenging their competitor’s patent rights.  After eight years in this private practice role I moved to my current IP Advisor role at UniServices.  I’ve been in my current role for about three years and am relishing the challenge and diversity of the projects I get involved in.  

What does a typical work week look like for you?

  1. Email and in-person conversations with academic staff and within the Commercialisation team are key ways that we progress new technologies.  These conversations allow me to prepare reports on the patentability of the fantastic new research ideas coming from the University.  Being involved in these conversations is a great privilege because I get to hear and learn about cutting edge tech from global experts in their field.  Along with the rest of the Commercialisation team we try to guide the development of the technology by providing vision, insight and investment to develop the commercial and IP potential of the tech.
  2. Management and development of UniServices’ patent portfolio is also a key part of my role.  Patents are frequently a critically important part of commercialising research.  Without them investors will not risk their cash to develop the research to be a viable revenue-generating product or service.  I liaise with external patent attorneys in NZ and overseas to prepare, file and process patent applications protecting the University’s technology.  As part of this guardian role I keep an eye on costs and ensure our patents are aligned with the commercial product or service we are trying to commercialise.  
  3. A few days a month I sit in on and occasionally provide advice to the Return on Science Investment Committees.  These Committees are an integral part of the Commercialisation process and provide feedback and investment for UniServices’ commercialisation projects.  These meetings are fascinating because they enable me to learn all about the new technology coming out of the University and its commercial potential.  It’s also great to be exposed to the collective wisdom and commercial experience of the committee members.  
  4. I regularly give seminars to staff and students, on topics such as IP ownership, patents and culturally sensitive research (“Māori IP”).  

Tell us more about your interest in Māori IP?

I’ve always had a keen interest in plants and ethnobotany.  I’m fascinated by the debate in New Zealand around Māori traditional knowledge - mātauranga Māori – and the Wai262 Waitangi Tribunal claim.  I’ve cultivated this interest in indigenous rights over the years and published articles on international best practice in this area (e.g. the Nagoya Protocol) and patent coverage of NZ indigenous plants.  Due to my interest in the field and legal background I’m often asked to advise on IP contractual matters relating to research projects involving mātauranga Māori. I work closely with our kaiārahi to try to promote understanding of the issues.  We try to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for the parties involved. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I get a buzz from the constant exposure to new research, learning about it, and being able to provide strategic advice on how to develop it into a viable technology.  I’m a small cog in a big machine trying to get new ideas out into the world as products, services, or simply ideas that others can build on for the future. The Commercialisation team is also great fun with diverse expertise - there’s always lots to learn from colleagues. 

If you could give one piece of advice relating to you work, what would it be?

One of the big issues we have to deal with in the IP team is the unintentional public disclosure of inventions before a patent has been filed.  This is an issue because the main requirement to have a patent granted covering an invention is novelty i.e. the invention must be new compared to everything previously publicly known.  If a researcher publishes the invention then it is no longer novel and a patent can’t be validly granted. 
 
This is a problem because patents are often critical to investors seeking to invest in new technologies. Therefore, public disclosure before patent filing often means promising technologies don’t get the development dollars they need. This in turn means that potential users of the new technology (e.g. patients seeking a new therapy) will almost certainly never stand to benefit.  I’ve seen investors walk away from technologies with great potential purely because the invention has already been published, for example in a scientific journal, a presentation at a conference, a poster at a symposium, or just on a public website.  

There a misconception that filing a patent will prevent the research from being published afterwards but this is simply wrong. In fact, the principle of the patent system is that the limited term patent monopoly is strictly in exchange for full disclosure of the details of the invention. So, my advice to researchers would be – if your work has commercial applications, talk to the Commercialisation/IP team about IP protection before publishing it.   

Do you have a favourite quote? 

This quote by the Roman Philosopher Seneca resonates:
“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity” 

It nicely embodies the results of a piece of research by the psychologist Richard Wiseman. He found that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles:

  1. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities
  2. They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition
  3. They create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and 
  4. They adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.  

While random chance inevitably plays a part in our lives, I think the fact that we can create our own destiny in these ways is incredibly empowering for all of us.  

Learn more about intellectual property and how to disclose your idea with UniServices or if you have any questions on IP please get in touch with us at ip@uniservices.co.nz