1 May 2012

The right foundations: the importance of prior art searches

Whether you’re a buyer or a seller, the customer is always right. This modern philosophy, more usually associated with those in the retail industry, weighs heavily on the life sciences industry. Science IP, a US company that searches and analyses scientific literature for IP professionals, places a huge emphasis on satisfying its clients.

From its office in Columbus, Ohio, the Science IP team takes on anything from a simple Chemical Abstracts Service search to a comprehensive prior art search. And it promises to deliver excellent results.

Led by Matt McBride, Science IP’s researchers cover a wide range of life sciences sectors. “We cover almost every industry from food science to engineering. Our core is in chemistry and biology—the majority of our work is either small molecule or large molecule chemistry-based work in patents,” he says. By and large, clients are patent attorneys or patent agents, but others including information professionals and inventors come knocking on Science IP’s door too.

There are strict requirements for joining the Science IP research team. An advanced degree in a science discipline is a minimum, and the current staff mostly have a Master’s, PhD or library science degree. Several of the 10-strong research team are registered US patent agents.

“They are career information professionals,” says McBride, who has been at the helm for two years. “They were also researchers at one point in their career. Most of them have served in industry for many years—both in research and as information professionals—and have now shifted to the point where they are dedicated research professionals.”


The staff usually work individually, liaising directly with the customer in similar fashion to an in-house counsel. “Everything is one on one—there is no anonymous inbox or email address,” says McBride.

“But within our team we consult if something spans across more than one discipline, for example if we get small molecule work that involves some type of receptor.”

In such cases, McBride says, he makes sure the customer is aware that there is more than one staff member advising on the project. The customer is the priority.

Researchers primarily use STN, which is the tool of choice for information professionals, according to McBride. STN is an online database service that provides global access to published research, journal literature, patents, structures, sequences, properties and other data.

As a neutral platform, STN provides access to a broad range of databases across the world. “It has everything from strictly-patent databases to those that are non-patent,” says McBride. “Those are our primary sources but we have a host of other tools as well, including in-house tools we have developed.”

To a layman, the big risk—the potentially huge flaw—in this process is the dependence on someone else’s product, someone else’s findings. But then again, is that not simply the nature of research? “We feel that most of these are value-added databases that have already been evaluated by experts, reviewed by experts and indexed by scientists or specialists in those fields,” says McBride. He firmly believes this wealth of expertise adds a layer of security for Science IP, which strives to achieve the utmost level of accuracy in its work.

There are two main benefits to using Science IP, says McBride. First, the high quality results. “We use the best sources available, those that take a considerable amount of training to use appropriately,” he says.

Second, the people. “We consider we have hired the best in the industry. We also make sure everyone knows who our staff are and what their backgrounds are. We post their details on our website so customers can choose with whom they want to work. It’s similar to an approach in a law firm where you want to know about someone’s credentials and who you are hiring to work for you.”

The website lists concise biographies of each researcher, explaining their qualifications and professional experience before joining Science IP. These are the people helping to maintain Science IP’s strong reputation in the field of life sciences research, and fitting customers’ needs, as McBride notes. “Some need quick and dirty searches, or they just need some information to get the job done.

But certainly when it comes to IP-related work there is a considerable cost to getting it wrong—and that’s where we come into play. Customers need cost-effective work in a timely manner but they also need the highest quality results possible, so we’ve hired people who can deliver all that to a customer and back it up with their years of experience, and we have the fastest turnaround out of most of our competitors—three to five days on average.”

“Some need quick and dirty searches, or they just need some information to get the job done. But certainly when it comes to IP-related work there is a considerable cost to getting it wrong—and that’s where we come into play."

But that is not the end of the process. Science IP’s clients are educated and intelligent people: they will ask questions and not easily take an answer at face value. “In many cases our clients demand that after we have done a search, we retrieve the full text of the information and re-confirm—we do that if needed,” he says.

Before the results are sent off, Science IP runs a number of checks. Senior staff members review all findings before they go out to the customer. McBride explains there is not one given way to complete a project: it is a flexible and versatile process. “Having a second set of eyes can often identify errors—sometimes there are errors—or whether an alternative approach is required,” he says.

So how does he ensure that a customer is satisfied with the work? “We make certain that our customers are satisfied; if they felt the work was insufficient we would work with the customer to resolve the issue. We follow up all our work at no additional cost if there has been an error, even if it’s just tracking down why something wasn’t retrieved.” The customer is always right.

The biggest challenge facing Science IP is meeting customers’ high expectations. It is imperative, McBride says, that the customer’s need is understood “right up front” because it dictates how Science IP executes the search. Every researcher spends a great deal of time trying to understand what information is required before he or she begins researching.

“A customer can write something on a piece of paper and say ‘this is what I’m looking for’, when in fact the request may be different—in terms of how quickly they need it back, the real question being addressed or even the format of how they want the information delivered. Sometimes we spend a lot more time getting all that done than we actually do on the search.”

When the search is over, when the work is done and the results sent off, Science IP continues to liaise with its clients. This may take the form of an update on the search report when, for example, the customer requires an update on any new information that may affect the strategy it now wants to adopt. This liaison period can range from one month to several years.

In all cases, McBride says, Science IP follows up with customers to ensure they are satisfied and the search meets their expectations. “In most cases they are working with their own client, waiting on feedback, before we know if we have met their needs,” he says.

This illustrates the real scope of Science IP’s effectiveness: its findings pass down the life sciences food chain, falling into the hands of those responsible for researching, developing and innovating. Its work is not limited to its customers, but it extends to their clients too. The team helps to shape IP strategies, providing a foundation and pointing them in the right direction.

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