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Commercial drive, technical innovation and intellectual property strategy - a recipe for success

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December 12, 2023

Co-Authored: Supercritical and HLK

The collaborative relationship between Supercritical Solutions and HLK demonstrates how valuable it can be for an early stage company and its advisor to form a genuine partnership, enabling a company to build an IP strategy that directly supports its business strategy, maximising the potential for IP to support commercial goals. 

Commercial focus

Established in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, Supercritical Solutions is a deep tech scale-up company spun out of Deep Science Ventures with a vision to make green hydrogen production at a lower cost than fossil hydrogen. Supercritical’s ultra-efficient electrolysis technology is designed to produce green hydrogen at high pressure, removing any need for downstream pressurisation while enabling a continuous and membrane-less design, circumventing many of the problems and inefficiencies associated with electrolysis of water. 

Co-founder and CTO Mike Russ explains that the company has always had a commercial focus instilled into it. “Deep Science Ventures creates companies to solve problems. A lot of companies that spin out of university research have innovative ideas but are looking for a problem to solve. We knew from day one there would be demand for our technology.

The Supercritical team was formed by Gaël Gobaille-Shaw of Deep Science Ventures, who had spotted the market opportunity and built a team of co-founders, including CTO Mike Russ, CEO Matt Bird and CPO Luke Tan. 

Putting together the right team and blend of expertise is essential for a start-up looking to grow and attract investment. Russ’ advice to other start-ups is to look at the management team as representing three sides of a triangle: “You need your management team to have governance, commercial and technical expertise. If you don’t have all three, you have an incomplete triangle and an incomplete management team”.  Supercritical also recognised that they would need to bring in external expertise at an early stage too, and as a deep tech innovator, recognised that Intellectual Property (IP) advice would be key to support the business strategy. 

Building an IP strategy to reflect the commercial focus

Supercritical evaluated a number of IP advisors early on, and selected HLK, based on its experience of protecting IP and deep technical expertise.  George Tebbutt is a Partner at HLK, working closely with colleague Michael Ford to support Supercritical.  “We’ve worked with Supercritical from the outset. We’ve been able to get to know the business in-depth, and help them with an IP strategy that matches both the technical and commercial trajectories for the company.” 

Owain, Senior Mechanical Engineer, evaluated Supercritical's TS1

Deep tech scale-ups like Supercritical are often conducting cutting edge research and development while simultaneously navigating an evolving roadmap to commercialisation.   This means that a good IP strategy looks beyond a current research focus or snapshot of the technology, and instead takes a more complete view of the projected technical roadmap, helping to identify and protect the developments which are going to underpin the USP of the company and protect its value. The close relationship between HLK and Supercritical has been a great example of this working in practice.  Tebbutt explains: “We’ve worked alongside the business as different iterations of product designs and processes have been tested and improved upon, helping us to spot the innovations which really enable and underpin the technology, and adapt the IP strategy accordingly.”  Specialist attorneys at HLK – from engineering to electrochemistry and materials – have been closely involved with Supercritical’s trials and simulations, leveraging data to support IP protection.   Supercritical now has a growing portfolio of patent applications (some unpublished), with new families capturing significant advances in the underlying technology.

From Mike Russ’ perspective, the commercial strategy was reflected in the IP strategy from the first meeting with HLK.  “The discussion went beyond how our technology works, focussing on our objectives, and how IP could support Supercritical’s commercial position and value.   Was the company going to manufacture electrolysis equipment or operate installations, licence its technology to others, or seek an acquisition?  How do Supercritical’s investors view IP? Where will Supercritical fit in amongst the hydrogen market and related industries?”.  

Knowing the possible directions of the business helps to determine a suitable IP strategy.  The focus has been on developing and protecting the core enabling technology which is applicable independent of the particular industrial use case - so the company remains open to opportunities and growth throughout the sector. 

Leveraging IP to expand and diversify

Supercritical’s technology is already being evaluated for markets from whisky production to producing green ammonia for fertilisers and shipping. Russ explains that these diverse end uses leverage the same core technology.  “Our USP is improving the efficiency of chemical production. It’s not about what the chemicals are used for, but making the underlying production more environmentally friendly. When we started the business, the hydrogen industry produced as much carbon dioxide as the entire aviation industry – and only 4% of the hydrogen produced was green. There’s massive potential for us to improve that market. We’ve always focused on established markets like this, despite our technology also being applicable to emerging markets in the hydrogen economy, such as heavy transportation and industrial heating.” 

As the company grows and matures, new adaptations and uses of the core technology are being identified, and the IP strategy is evolving to reflect this.

From HLK’s perspective, the engagement with Supercritical has been a fantastic opportunity to support an IP-rich business working on hard science for positive change.  George Tebbutt summarises: “The highly collaborative approach with the team at Supercritical has been very rewarding – whether we’re diving deep into the technical research, pushing forward the IP strategy or joining investor meetings – our aim is to become an extension of their team, helping their IP become a huge asset that supports commercial goals and value”.

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