Protecting IP was costly for Visorcat but it was money well spent as managing director Jill Boulton explains to Ellen McGann.
Noticing the need for greater safety among motorcyclists, entrepreneurs and siblings Jill and Alan Boulton realised that greater visibility could be the key to greater safety on the roads. With this in mind, in 1999 they dreamed up a product that would allow riders to clean their visors while riding, and it became an “idea that just wouldn’t go away”.
This particularly persistent idea was for a unique product that could improve visibility and safety for motorcycle riders, allowing them to wash their visor whenever and wherever they needed to, using washing and wiping system mounted on their glove.
Visorcat’s managing director, Jill Boulton, explains: “It’s the only product on the market that enables a motorcycle rider to safely keep the visor clean while on the move. It’s the equivalent of a car’s wash-wipe system, only it fits over the motorcyclist’s glove.”
The time was finally right to address the “idea that wouldn’t go away” in 2010 when Jill took a business course run by the cultural enterprise office of the Scottish Government, “Starter for Six”. The programme was designed to support and encourage inventive entrepreneurs and aimed to transform creative ideas into successful businesses.
Jill explains: “You had to go on a course over quite a long period of time, for several months, covering every aspect of setting up a business. Then at the end of the course, if you wanted to, you could pitch your business idea and say why you wanted to win £10,000, including what you would spend it on.
“I costed out what I needed money for, which was two things really – it was to file a patent application and also to make prototypes – and I discovered that those things would cost me £9,758, so that’s what they awarded me. £9,758. I still remember the exact amount all these years later.”
That initial £9,758 allowed Jill and Alan to turn their unusual idea into a reality, and at last Visorcat was born.
Jill says: “I have always been interested in business and manufacturing and I admit to being a petrolhead, so it was good to combine all of those interests.”
When the time was right to go into business, Visorcat initially went from strength to strength, with the duo raising additional funding and seeking advice to help them get started and protect their intellectual property (IP).
“I raised some private funding in 2012, when we were joined by operations director Andy Pringle, and we were able to market test Visorcat in 2013-14,” explains Jill. “Over that period, we had help from Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise, and I would say they were crucial in helping us to protect our IP and also in developing our branding, packaging and point of sale, as well as our marketing assets.”
Jill explains that, even from this early stage, IP played an integral role in establishing the business: “Visorcat has got technology, but it’s not cutting edge, it’s just the clever patented design which makes it unique, and this encompasses some laws of physics.
“It uses fluid mechanics to transfer fluid from the reservoir into the sponge – that in itself isn’t unique – but the design of it is patented. The really clever bit is that the wet sponge is covered by a flap that automatically opens when the rider wipes across the visor in one direction so that moisture is applied to the visor, and the flap stays closed when moved across the visor in the other direction. So that enables the twin wipers on the back of the flap to then remove any residue. The sponge under the flap is the patented bit. The way it all comes together is pretty clever.”
This IP is at the very heart of the business, “It is absolutely fundamental to what we do”, Jill explains. “It’s not just the product, it’s not just that the IP is so bound-up in the product, it’s actually fundamental to the way we operate. We’re always looking for ways to strengthen the IP in our products and processes.”
This innovative product soon caught the attention of motorcyclists, safety campaigners, and even attracted interest from the BBC, resulting in Jill and Alan’s appearance on Dragons Den to showcase Visorcat back in 2014. Jill says: “An email came in from the BBC inviting us to apply – so we did. We went along for the hell of it really – and to give Visorcat a well-deserved airing on the BBC.”
The boost from showcasing Visorcat on national television meant that the product was in higher demand than ever before. Jill says: “The publicity was great, we got a lot of enquiries after that, just the timing wasn’t very good.”
With IP such an important part of the business, it is imperative that this IP stays protected. But the cost of protecting that IP presented some challenges for Visorcat once it gained popularity. Jill says: “We sold out of stock the same month we were on Dragons Den, that was the benefit. The downside was that we ran out of money to make any more products.
“One of the challenges was the high cost of protecting our IP. It was a plus and a minus. Because it was so expensive, it was, in a way, a barrier to making progress because we had to halt production for 18 months in order to pay our big patent bills.
“Basically, at that time it was a choice between carrying on making the product or paying our bills, we couldn’t do both, so we decided to pay the bills and just halted production for a while until we were able to start up again. It was a difficult time for us.”
However, Visorcat lived to tell the tale, due in part to its loyal customers, who had come to see Visorcat as an important addition to their motorcycling equipment.
“What kept us going was the feedback and encouragement from customers,” explains Jill. “It was because they kept saying ‘when are you going to be back in stock?’ they kept emailing us and contacting us through social media. That emboldened us to borrow some more money and start up again.”
The cost of protecting their IP was certainly worth paying for Jill and Andy, and they had taken advice very early on in their business journey about how best to manage and protect their intellectual assets. “The value of our IP now is not just in the unique innovative design and our patent” Jill explains. “We’ve got European and US patents, and obviously a UK patent. The strength of our brand and our know-how is also vital.”
One way that the business protects its IP is by maintaining control over the manufacturing process. Visorcat is manufactured in its own factory in Dunbar, allowing the entrepreneurs behind it to make subtle tweaks and changes if they spot an area that could be improved.
Jill says: “The product has undergone subtle improvements recently that will help us stay ahead of the game and ahead of the competition. We’re always looking for ways we can strengthen our technology.
“We actually manufacture this product in-house here in Dunbar so we have total ownership of the entire process, we are able to make subtle improvements, and quite swift improvements in response to customer feedback. When we need to improve or change we are able to do that quite quickly – so that’s how we continue to protect our unique processes and our IP. We’re always looking for ways we can improve what we do.
If we were manufacturing thousands of miles away we wouldn’t have control over that process and what you produce is fixed. Whereas we are making it and we can actually improve it as we make it. We’re not just sending an order out somewhere offshore and getting 10,000 products back.”
Visorcat is now looking to the future, to see how more improvements could make it even more valuable to motorcyclists. The business is working with universities to establish how it could improve the product and therefore improve road safety for motorcycle users. Herriot Watt university is currently looking at Visorcat’s fluid delivery system to find ways in which it can be improved.
Jill says: “At the moment, in 2018 we’re in good shape for growth, signs are really good. We’ve just sent an order to the US and we’re supplying a Danish distributor and also our network of UK stockists is steadily growing. We’re talking to a major European distributor who has links to global distribution.
“That’s all going well and we’re in a good position because through investing in our marketing and branding we are able to raise our profile at events and trade shows across the UK. And I think we have now attracted the attention of some names in the motorcycle industry and that has really put us on the map.”
Although manufacturing in the UK allows the company to keep control over its IP, Jill and Andy are looking at the possibility of having the product manufactured further afield. Jill says: “We anticipate that we will license the manufacture of Visorcat elsewhere so it won’t be just manufactured in the UK and we’ll probably license the technology to specialist glove manufacturers as well.”
Jill and Andy also promote motorcycle safety. Jill says: “We feel passionately about motorcycle safety, and reduced vision has been a contributing factor in some motorcycle accidents but Visorcat maximises the rider’s vision in all conditions so it is a contribution to safety.
“I think the acknowledgement we’ve had from the wider road safety community has been our greatest achievement in business” Jill says. “For example, the road safety and training organisation IAM – now known as IAM RoadSmart – said ‘Visorcat provides the rider with better vision, which leads to greater safety.’ And they gave us their IAM accolade for road safety initiatives. We’ve also been recognised by ROSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. And Bennetts the Insurers as well.”
Jill hopes that, in the coming years, Visorcat will become an established brand in the motorcycle industry, recognised alongside respected motorcycling brands such as Scottoiler and Pinlock.
She says: “Scottoiler is another Scottish company, with an automatic chain oiling system. It’s a good system and Pinlock is another major name and we know these guys and I would say I would like to see us up there with those major respected names.”
After experiencing the ups and downs of owning and protecting IP, Jill has some words of advice for new entrepreneurs who have an idea and are looking to start out on their business journeys. She says: “I’ve recently met someone who is in a similar situation and I need to sit down with him and tell him everything that we’ve been through.
“In simple terms, I would advise them to prepare for a very long, difficult and expensive process. People say it takes three times as long as you imagine but I would say sometimes it even takes ten times as long as you’d expect – and many times more expensive.
“It’s a very long, difficult and expensive process. You also need the personality to see it through, you need nerves of steel and endless energy and determination, I think. Determination is a big thing – not to mention the money. It’s good to get some early advice on protecting your IP, just so you know where you stand with that – what you can and can’t do with your IP. Some people think you can’t talk to anyone about it, but you can. You just have to be careful what you say.
“Another thing is not to give up but to keep your feet firmly on the ground. A good team is important too – to help the entrepreneur to keep their feet on the ground and not give up.”
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