Patenting brings a competitive advantage, marketing benefits, and license revenues – Case Unikulma

2.9.2019

Unikulma is a Finnish family-owned company that makes individually customized mattresses. The company started to patent when one of their mattress models was copied by a competitor. Now, Unikulma is one of the industry’s leading IP filers in the world, according to founder Vesa Tuominen. Patenting has brought Unikulma a competitive advantage, marketing benefits, and even a direct financial gain through license revenues.

Vesa Tuominen, Founder of Unikulma

The story of customized mattresses begins in the 1970s. Vesa Tuominen, the CEO of Unikulma, was a 13-year-old schoolboy, and had trouble sleeping due to back problems. To get a better sleeping position, Vesa got the idea of drilling holes in his mattress to make it more comfortable. His parents encouraged him to build an entire bed, and soon he found himself making mattresses also to the other members of his back rehabilitation group. To the surprise of their physiotherapist, the group’s back problems were gone after six months.

Motivated by the good results, Vesa started studying ergonomics and occupational psychology at the Helsinki University of Technology. His outlook on beds and ergonomics was based on the realization that because we spend much of our time sleeping, the bed is a major contributor to our health, much like a height-adjustable desk, for instance.

Individually tailored mattresses for better health

Vesa started building beds for his coursemates, and set up his own company in 1985. The first beds were built in his parents’ garage. In 1987, Unikulma opened a store in Petikko, Vantaa.

– Our business idea is to make individual mattresses according to the customer’s body shape. This involves tailored manufacture to meet our customers’ unique needs. We get plenty of feedback from customers for product development. If it turns out that someone is not satisfied with our mattress, we may even go see the customer at home to check the situation and hear them out, Vesa says.

Unikulma also sells bed covers, sheets, beds, and all other fundamentals to a good night’s sleep.

In addition to consumers, Unikulma sells products to corporate customers, such as hotels, and is also a major player in the manufacture of care and nursing beds. The entire process of making a customized mattress is based in Finland. The sales, design, manufacture and supply are all handled by the company itself.

Copying was a wake-up call to seek IP protection

In 1992, a competitor copied one of Unikulma’s mattress models. This unfortunate event made Vesa realize why protecting inventions is important. Luckily, Vesa received help from a friend who was working in the IP field.

Unikulma began to build an IP portfolio by filing for utility models. Although Vesa found patenting expensive, he was positively surprised to see he could make money through license fees. That money was used to buy a new office building for Unikulma in 2002, and the business took yet another step forward.

– You should contact an IP firm as early as possible to get on the right track with protecting your invention from the start, Vesa Tuominen advises.

Unikulma’s collaboration with Papula-Nevinpat began through an acquisition (Forssén & Salomaa), and the attorney appointed to Unikulma was Timo Helino. In addition to protecting inventions, Papula-Nevinpat has helped Unikulma in opposition and infringement cases, and evaluated the company’s own freedom to operate in view of others’ intellectual property rights.

The copying event taught Unikulma how important it is to defend your rights. The company has brought patent infringement actions to court, and once even initiated a criminal procedure. The criminal action was the first one in Finland in this line of business, and Unikulma received a fair compensation from the infringer.

In addition to utility models, Unikulma owns trademarks and patents. All in all, Unikulma has 42 different types of intellectual property registrations. Vesa believes that on a global scale, it’s more than anyone else has in this industry.

Good advice from an IP expert

There are different types of intellectual property rights, such as trademarks to protect product names, design registrations to protect the look of your products, and patents and utility models to protect the technical solutions used in the products.

– All these different types of intellectual property rights are basically purposed for the same goal – to prevent copying, so that you can gain a competitive advantage. This also applies to consumer products, says Jukka Korhonen, European Patent Attorney from Papula-Nevinpat.

What every business owner should know about IP rights:

1. IP is one of the tools a business can use to gain a competitive advantage: it gives you the right to prevent others from using your technical solution, trademark, or the design of your product. Why not use the opportunity?
2. Protecting the fruits of your product development is important, because if you don’t, copying within certain limits is completely allowable, sometimes even smart.
3. If you decide to protect your rights, it’s your responsibility to monitor that they are respected, and intervene if necessary. No one enforces your rights on your behalf.
4. Even if you didn’t protect your own IP, your competitors may have protected their rights. At least make sure that you’re not infringing on somebody else’s rights.
5. It’s important to be aware of your competitors’ filings, and prepare to take proper action, for instance by filing an opposition against a competitor’s patent.

– You need expert help especially with patenting and international filing. Even drafting the application is a challenge, because there are so many things to consider besides just the claims. We have a good number of granted patents because the applications were drafted by a professional. You also have to be prepared to make changes to the applications. And it’s important to keep track of your competitors’ applications, which is no easy job to do on your own, Vesa points out.

Papula-Nevinpat assists Unikulma in patent, utility model, and trademark registration cases. In addition, the experts from Papula-Nevinpat have represented Unikulma in oppositions, and helped the company in freedom-to-operate and patent infringement issues.

Vesa Tuominen is pleased with the collaboration with Papula-Nevinpat, and particularly highlights the staff’s hard-working attitude, perseverance, and wide expertise.

– The people at Papula-Nevinpat are reliable experts in their field. They never answer your questions with an “I’ll look into it”, but know right away what to do, and their process is clear. I remember particularly well one opposition case with European Patent Attorney Satu Lehesranta. In addition to her highly professional approach, her excellent English skills were actually a great help to our case during the oral proceedings at the European Patent Office.

Tips on how to profit from patenting

Patent protection is an investment, because patents bring value to your company in many ways. Patenting strengthens your competitive position; for instance, you can sell patented products at a higher price, and you can also use patents as a marketing tool.

– Many business owners don’t file for patents because they are so focused on how expensive it is. Of course it costs money to protect your rights, but if your business goal is to make a profit, you can use IP as a tool to achieve that goal. You could consider it an investment, Jukka Korhonen from Papula-Nevinpat comments.

– We’ve made millions of euros in profit from protecting our IP over these years. The money has come in the form of license fee payments and compensations, but also in the form of the competitive advantage we’ve gained because the competitors are not even trying to sell the same product we’ve protected by a patent. Within the company, we are also proud of our patented innovations. Patenting brings value to our brand marketing processes and our branding as an employer, Vesa Tuominen adds.

How to monetize your patents:

● If you have a product or service that is technologically superior to others, you may be able to sell your protected products at a higher price or produce them at a lower cost.
● A patented product gives you a marketing advantage over your competitors.
● You can also license your patented technology, which means you can give others a permission to use your patented invention for a fee.
● A patent gives you the right to prevent others from using your protected invention. If you find out that someone violates your right, you can file a court action and claim damages for unauthorized use of your invention.
● If someone should accuse you of infringement, you’ll be in a stronger position and may have to pay less damages or license fees, if you also have patents of your own (cross-licensing).

IPR = Intellectual Property Rights

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