Unilever benefits from web-based patent data management system

Corporate patent departments may want transition to a digital environment to manage portfolios.

When I arrived at Unilever in 2009, I found myself leading a patent group of close to 100 professionals worldwide, scattered in locations across the U.S., Europe and Asia. In the first six months of my tenure, I traveled extensively, visiting our offices across several continents, and gained a firsthand sense of the opportunities and challenges for our group. It was immediately clear to me that one of our biggest challenges would be to continue communicating effectively as we extended our global reach. We work with knowledge, and real-time access to our knowledge base is critical to doing our work effectively.

Our paper-based processes, as familiar as they were, were simply not going to be able to meet our needs as we moved our operations into the 21st century. Accordingly, one of our most pressing requirements was to implement an electronic document management system designed specifically for our patent portfolio. I understood that making this change would be transformative for the way we work. It would enable us to achieve new levels of collaboration that would enhance quality and promote greater efficiencies, consequently positioning us to respond more quickly to the demands of the business as we enter new markets.

Unilever is a global, fast-moving consumer goods company with a highly diversified slate of product offerings in the foods, beverages, personal care and home care categories. The offices of our patent groups are generally located at our global research centers where large scale research and development takes place.

Our overall patent portfolio currently includes close to 25,000 live pending and granted patents. Our patent portfolio is an important and valuable asset to the company. To the outside observer, it would seem obvious that the capacity to electronically share documents throughout the patent life cycle across our offices around the world would carry benefits ranging from enhanced collaboration to increased sustainability. In fact, while efforts had been made prior to my arrival to source and implement such a system, the solution had never managed to escape the planning stages. One of my first priorities upon joining Unilever was to try to change this.

Seeking a Solution

A general document management system (DMS) simply wasn’t going to do the job as a DMS wouldn’t provide a workflow for the patent attorneys.  Unilever’s  IT group  had planned to customize an enterprise content management system , specifically Microsoft SharePoint, to respond to our needs for the management of our patent files.  But  I was concerned,, as I knew that customizing SharePoint would take many years to implement, and it was unclear whether the resulting system would be robust enough to respond to changes in the law as well as our demands on the system. We also looked at Anaqua, but we would have had to move to a different document system and it was cost prohibitive.  What we needed was an IP-specific document management system, something that was built from the ground floor up to mimic the workflows of IP attorneys. 

Before joining Unilever, I worked for Johnson & Johnson and had exposure to a web-based IP information management system called Electronic File Room (EFR) made by California-based First To File. The EFR system was internet-based, so it was accessible by the web from anywhere in the world, and it would be a central repository for all our patent documents, including prior art and correspondence. First To File’s EFR, having been built for IP lawyers, would require little behavioral adjustment for my team.It was the only product on the market of its kind.  Ultimately, Unilever’s IT group was convinced that the IP group needed to source our own system, and in November 2010, Unilever purchased First To File’s Electronic File Room.

Implementation and Data Migration

Unilever’s IT professionals worked with First To File’s technical staff to begin the planning process. We created a strong project team that included patent attorneys and support personnel. The team was instrumental in providing valuable input and insights about our workflow for the IT professionals and First To File’s technical staff.

Data fields in our docketing system, Computer Packages Inc. (CPi), were mapped over to Electronic File Room, so we did not have to re-enter all our case information. Also, First To File technical support set up our data to synchronize and transfer every two hours across the globe, so the information on the system consistently stays current. Our IT team needed to adjust the system to accommodate our European version of CPi, which organizes its graphical user interface differently.

Overall, the implementation process for First To File’s Electronic File Room required about six months and the total time commitment was a few months more, including the user training, international customizations and putting new hardware in place, which included mostly dual flat screen monitors so lawyers and staff could have more than one application viewable at a time. The system is transforming our way of working and the processes we are putting in place today will be more robust as a result.

Anticipated Benefits

With First To File, as we continue the process of uploading our paper files into EFR, all of our patent professionals will have immediate access to our patent portfolio. When a professional in our Bangalore office in India converses with a colleague in the Netherlands in connection with a patent file, both colleagues can be confident they are looking at the same file. This immediate access will include access to Office Actions once they are uploaded into EFR instead of waiting for the receipt of the action through the mail. Another benefit is that our database will be searchable, which of course will help us in the drafting of our patent applications.

We will be able to work more efficiently with outside agents, ultimately enabling them to upload documents directly instead of using email and attachments as our de facto management system. As a result, the system will streamline our operation, improve our efficiency and enhance the quality of our work.

At Unilever, we project that 80 percent of our growth in the next decade will come from the emerging and developing markets, for example, the BRICs, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, central Europe and Turkey. Having an electronic repository of our global portfolio with immediate access anywhere in the world will help us to provide the strong support that will be necessary in these countries.

The Shanghai Difference

Last year, we opened our first office in Shanghai. With EFR, our newly appointed professionals will have ready access to our global patent portfolio, so they can hit the ground running. The ability to integrate this new office into our larger group is an obvious additional benefit of the new system. We also will not need to hire administrative staff to create and maintain patent files. Lastly, we can reduce our reliance on carriers to ship paper files around the world.

Sustainability

In addition to the benefits of efficiency, collaboration and quality, our electronic patent management system will enable our group to contribute to Unilever’s overall sustainability strategy. Unilever is committed to doubling its growth while halving its environmental footprint by 2020. The patent group has historically been a tremendous user of paper—perhaps one of the largest in the company. With First To File, we will be able to dramatically reduce our environmental footprint, which is icing on the cake for us. In short, with First To File, we have established an electronic management system for our patent files with all of its attendant benefits, with the extra benefit of a “green” system consistent with Unilever’s sustainability vision.

In summary, corporate patent departments need to transition to a digital environment for the management of their patent portfolios to respond to ever-increasing demands of their businesses. At Unilever, we are in the midst of this transition. It is a transformative change, and we hope to reap the benefits in a number of ways.

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