Lucy Wojcik, head of IP at UK online supermarket Ocado, tells Patent Strategy how the business became R&D focused and then embedded IP into its workflows to better protect its innovations
Despite appearances, UK online supermarket Ocado has always been a tech-focused company.
Since its creation in 2000, its founders and former merchant bankers Jonathan Faiman, Jason Gissing and Tim Steiner were committed to using technologies in an interesting way to make grocery delivery more efficient.
They would negotiate with suppliers to push the boundaries of their technologies to ensure that small efficiencies were made at every stage of the warehouse delivery process to increase the margins and create a viable business model.
But in 2014, the company decided to look at new ways to drive efficiency wins. Rather than relying primarily on other people’s technologies and finding clever ways of using them, the business would ramp up its R&D and start creating its own innovations to make processes even faster.
The Ocado leaders quickly realised they would need a stronger IP function to help them protect these new assets. That’s when they brought in Lucy Wojcik to be the business’s new head of IP in 2014.
“I was brought into the company and it was clear at that time that it was not simply a retail business,” she tells Patent Strategy. “I remember thinking before that: ‘There cannot be anything clever in delivering beans – why have I been invited for an interview?’
“But having got here and worked here, and looking at its history, Ocado has always been a tech company and always pushed the limits with whatever solutions it has. That has been the case whether we have been buying things off the shelf and using it in interesting ways or in the use of our own tech.”
She adds that part of the reason this innovative culture was present in the business was the simple nature of delivering groceries. Delivering books and DVDs is easy. Delivering groceries, which need to be stored and transported at different temperatures and where the margins are quite small, is much harder.
“Every second you can save in the warehouse and every way you can remove points of failure from a machine is a win,” says Wojcik. “And Ocado has been doing that since the beginning.”
As well as making improvements in mechanical engineering, Ocado, taking inspiration from the shipping container industry, has developed its software expertise and is using programs to simulate new warehouse processes and create digital prints to test new environments before the company builds them.
“We don’t just go out one morning and build a warehouse. There is a huge amount of data science that goes into it,” she says. “We know how they operate, where the sticking points will be and test them. We can find out what happens if something stops working, or if it is a very hot that day, or we get a lot of extra orders, for example.”
Her job then was to make sure that IP became an integral business function and that her department was doing everything it could to find and protect what Ocado was inventing that could add value and drive competitive advantage.
She tells Patent Strategy more in a Q&A:
What IP challenges keep you awake at night?
There are lots of things. I have to spin plates – everything to do with IP is about juggling. Everyone is resources-constrained – which I don’t mean to sound negative. My team, after all, has doubled in the past six months but my workload has quadrupled.
From a litigation standpoint, my job is to obviously make sure we do not get into any. We do a lot of freedom to operate searches and know what companies are doing what. Although we might give the impression of being less risk-averse than other companies, my job is to make sure that it is a qualified risk.
Then there is the business strategy. It is very easy in an IP team to become a little bit of an ivory tower. We need to ensure that at all stages we fall back into the business strategy. There is no point protecting things that the business is not interested in progressing.
And there are the little jobs such as ensuring engineers do not disclose anything too early. We don’t want videos on YouTube giving away our ideas.
But overall I’m very lucky to have a supportive management team and I hope we all sleep at night. We have the right procedures, people and policies in place. If we are not sleeping at night, we are not doing the job right.
What does your team look like and how does it fit within the business?
We have two fully qualified patent attorneys and one European patent attorney. We also have another attorney starting in November and then another in January, and a full-time IP landscape expert who does a lot of work with the engineers to understand the background and IP landscape we work in.
We still have one vacancy, so we will be a team of eight before the middle of next year. And we are all busy – there is no sitting around twiddling thumbs.
I favour in-house teams because they can all work within the engineering teams. The attorney who has been with me the longest sits with me and we talk about patent issues, but he also goes to the engineering meetings and is embedded in the function he looks after.
All my attorneys will have a division they work in that they are part of, alongside being in the IP team.
My job there is making sure we are finding the important inventions – the ones that matter to the company – and that we protect them in a sensible number of jurisdictions where they add value to the company.
We have regular prioritisation meetings with heads of divisions to see what people are working on and determine whether it is important or game-changing and needs protecting.
Do you have any advice for other IP managers looking to streamline their processes or better integrate IP into the business?
There are two things I would suggest.
The first is to wear two hats. You cannot sit in the legal department and issue orders – you must be on the ground and, in my case, in the warehouse and talking to the teams. By embedding yourself in the processes you can be more part of the team. That gives us the ability to be more agile.
So try and be agile and take on the persona of the people you work with.
The other is to communicate. It is important that you get the IP message across in five bullet points. The people I deal with, both above and ‘below’ me, do not have the time for me to explain IP in the detail I need them to understand it in.
Always say things quickly and to the point.
What drove the refocus to R&D at Ocado?
It is difficult for me to comment. In terms of our system and offering, what drove that improvement was customer uptake of our online offering.
If we look at 2000 when Ocado started, people were not ordering things online – or at least not groceries. We are now at a point where people want to order their dinner when they’re standing at the train station, and want it delivered by the time they get home.
There is a consumer drive, and if you look at our legacy systems, an average size order can take two to four hours to pick and prepare for dispatch in one of our ‘legacy warehouses.’
Our new systems enable a similar size order to be picked in a matter of minutes. With clever delivery routing and software systems, our customers can order what they want from the platform and it can be delivered on time.
Knowing the people I work with, I suspect that was the start in the change of focus from off-the-shelf tech to our own innovations.
What kind of tech are you looking to develop in the future?
I can refer you to our CEO’s presentation to the city in February where he showed a diagram of areas and verticals where our tech could be used. We are already involved in vertical farming and we are looking at other areas where we can add our knowledge and competencies to make efficiencies.
We are also disrupting ourselves in grocery delivery.
Our CEO frequently points out that we are an innovation factory: so it’s a matter of looking at what we’re good at and applying it to other places. If you look at some of the fields we’re looking at now, some look as though we’ve gone a bit mad and in some it’s obvious where the synergy is.
All of those mean overcoming problems – and as soon as you have problems that need solutions and engineers, you are generating IP.
What were the challenges in managing that change?
There was a challenge in having a huge number of highly intelligent people in the organisation with amazing ideas, and there was only me to handle the IP behind them.
The one thing I did not have a challenge with was understanding and support from senior management. They understood IP and knew it was important and that it needed doing. There are some companies where IP departments fight to be heard and that is not the case here.
The main issues we had was the speed at which we could protect IP compared to the sheer force of nature of the Ocado engineering teams – they are so fast.
To me at times, it felt as though once I was writing up one patent, the team was already on the fourth evolution of the technology and we had only started a week ago. They are fast-moving and do not take no for an answer and really go for it. So it was a fantastic challenge to work with such motivated people and trying to bring it all together.