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Gründerne Håkon Sagberg og Knut Sandven. Foto: Atle Abelsen

Gas Secure

A smart patent process over the course of 12 years enabled the founders of the small technology firm GasSecure eventually to earn half a billion Norwegian kroner.

Text: Atle Abelsen

In March 2015, the German industrial group Dräger decided to incorporate their patent-protected products into its product range

The successful invention is a wireless gas detector. Gas detectors are big business, because they are essential for safety in several industries around the world, in particular in the oil and gas sector and the chemical industry. The advantage of the GasSecure detector is that it is wireless. Detectors to warn of emissions of methane (natural gas) are normally quite energy-hungry. Wireless detectors have therefore not yet been available in this industry, even though there has been demand for them.

Crucial patents

Together with CEO Knut Sandven, Håkon Sagberg established the firm in 2008 on the basis of a patent for what is known as a MEMS chip (microelectromechanical systems) that Sagberg had worked on as part of his doctorate at the University of Oslo over the period 2001-2005. This MEMS chip was developed further in cooperation with several SINTEF research scientists. The patent today is owned by SINTEF, which licenses it exclusively to GasSecure (now Dräger) for that company's applications. SINTEF can also out-license the same rights to other industrial companies operating in other markets.

While Sagberg worked on continued development of this chip up to 2008, the entrepreneurs came up with the idea of using it in two sensors in the same gas detector. This idea was patented, and that is how the development firm GasSecure came into being.

Carefully thought-out strategy

Sagberg says that their patent portfolio now comprises a total of seven patent families. Such a 'family' is a collection of patents and applications originating from the same original application. "With our experience from SINTEF, we made sure that we had a carefully thought-out patent strategy. We have involved good patent specialists from an early stage in the description of the patents. What to include in the description is crucial in determining whether an application can be successfully upheld or modified.

They have used several patent consultants, who have had different specialist expertise and working methods. In Norway they have used Bryn Aarflot and Protector. In addition, they have used Dehns in London.

"We have favourable experience with these firms, but our product is so unique that the patents have not been put to any serious 'test' in terms of conflict with similar technologies. So I do not feel that we are in a position to give any advice to others, other than early involvement. You almost have to just feel your way forward, and ideally try out several at the same time to find who you cooperate with best."

 

Reverse method

He emphasises that patenting is not the only way of protecting intellectual property rights. "You can also do the opposite, namely publish open information to prevent others from patenting. At the same time, you can keep parts of the invention secret to prevent others copying the technology," he says.

A patent typically has a term of 20 years. It is common to have around 10 years of development before then having another ten years to exploit the patent commercially. This fits in well with the history of GasSecure, which made its first commercial sale in 2013.

"All the same, it's not the case that competitors will be queuing up with copies the day the patent runs out. This is a highly complex technology with a lot of technical know-how that is not patented. We have also patented or applied for patents and later withdrawn the patent applications."

Patent fees are usually low at the start, and increase to become more significant towards the end of the period of validity, when the company has presumably started earning good money. "It's a clever system that makes it possible to patent ideas while trying them out in practice. If the ideas are rejected, the patents are withdrawn and the costs in trial and error are not so great."

It is also common to start with a general patent and then add more detailed core technologies, and perhaps reject others, as development proceeds through a process of trial and error.

SINTEF MinaLab produces the core component, the optical MEMS chip. It has invested significant resources in developing, optimising and patenting the production process. GasSecure has exclusive rights to all patents linked to production of the chip, in the same way as for the oldest patent. However, MInaLab has a good deal of relevant production knowledge that has not been patented or published and that makes it an attractive production partner for Dräger.

Freedom to operate

"Our patent work does not prevent our competitors from copying our ideas. It's just as important for us to ensure that we do not infringe other patents, which would cause us problems or heavy costs later on."

The latter in particular was an important point when Dräger came onto the scene. When they spend so much money buying up a group of patents, which in reality they do when they buy the firm, they have to be sure that they have 'freedom to operate'. That means that the patents the detector is based do not clash with other patents.

"Freedom to operate is probably just as important to Dräger as the patent being protected in the markets it is to be used in," says Sagberg.

The development of the technology and the company has been funded by external investors, Statoil, ConoPhillips and the employees, with solid support from the Research Council of Norway and Innovation Norway. GasSecure and all the employees will continue as a Norwegian branch of Dräger, with continued responsibility for developing new, innovative solutions for gas detection.

About the product and the patents

The GS01 gas detector is aimed at industrial markets, in particular the oil and gas sector, where gas detectors are regarded as essential equipment for safety reasons. The main strength of the GS01 is that it is wireless, and highly energy-efficient, while being at least as reliable as wired detectors. It therefore rarely requires monitoring, maintenance and battery replacement. There are other wireless solutions, but none is anywhere near as energy-efficient. The battery will normally last for two years of operation. The fact that it is wireless means that the installation costs are reduced to a fraction of those of wired warning systems.

The product is based on a number of patents in seven patent families. Three patents are counted as 'main patents'.

  1. The first one is the actual detector design, the 'dual sensor principle', with two types of sensors in one detector. One of these is a highly energy-efficient ultrasonic sensor. It continuously measures changes in air flow, which may mean that there is an undesirable gas in the air. If that happens, an optical sensor based on infrared light is activated. The second one consumes more energy, but is still highly energy-efficient. All types of gas have a specific optical 'signature'. If this signature indicates that there is methane (natural gas) in the air, the alarm is triggered. If not, the optical sensor goes back into hibernation, and the operating company has saved time and costs due to a false alarm.
  2. The second patent, 'configurable defractive optical element' is what is known as a MEMS chip (microelectromechanical systems), which receives the reflected light signal emitted by the optical sensor. Using an ingenious system of mobile micro-components, this chip can analyse the signal and decide with a high degree of accuracy whether the alarm should be activated.
  3. The third main patent is linked to wireless communication, and is a method for transferring measured data to the control system. The method is safe, fast and energy-efficient, and is just as reliable as wired solutions. The detectors are linked together in a fine mesh network. This means that each detector is able to receive and pass on radio signals from other detectors.

The gas detector has been patented in a number of countries around the world.

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