Startup IP, Investors, and Nondisclosures

Frequently, in an intellectual property consultation with a startup team, we inventory and discuss the intellectual property involved in the business plan and the timing, cost, and strategy in protecting it. As some intellectual property rights can be impacted or misappropriated upon disclosure, the consultation turns towards upcoming disclosures of the proprietary elements of the business plan. Frequently, the upcoming disclosures includes presentations in front of angels or venture capitalists for funding. In turn, this leads to a discussion of approaches to protect elements of the business plan in light of the upcoming disclosure. Sometimes there is a discussion of nondisclosure agreements, which leads to the fact that the majority of formal investors don’t sign nondisclosure agreements. This can create a problem with the intellectual property rights associated with the business plan. For example, some elements of the business plan may be patentable subject matter. In certain settings, the pitch may be deemed a public disclosure. This would mean that the startup has one year to file a patent application in the United states and has forfeited patent rights in many countries outside the U.S., thus international patent filing protection is limited.

Below are three approaches for considering preservation of intellectual property rights associated with a business plan before pitching to investors:

Common concerns of a startup in disclosing proprietary without a signed NDA include the investor revealing the idea to others, theft of the business plan, and the risk of losing rights in the protectable elements of the business plan. A risk averse approach is to have the suitable intellectual property filings and procedures completed before making any pitches. Intellectual property submissions with a filing date prior to pitching is one of the better approaches to mitigate or minimize the damages associated with those concerns. One scenario where this approach may be useful is a Slanket style business plan. Where the business concept is centered around a product that has limited technological innovation, a catchie brand name, and a strong marketing campaign. The startup team may believe that pitching this without any intellectual property filings may be letting the cat out of the bag and opt for this approach.

A second approach is tiered disclosure of proprietary information. You are typically wasting paper and your breath in presenting a nondisclosure agreement to an investor on a first presentation. The first meeting is typically introductory and there is usually no need to reveal much proprietary information. You should be able to explain the product/service, the problem solved, the target market, financials, and the team credentials without discussing the secret sauce. The investors should then have sufficient information to determine whether they invest in the field of technology, whether they are already invested in a competitor, whether there is potential for return on investment, and whether there is interest in a further conversation. Then during the subsequent conversations, you may provide additional tiers of information. After the first or second presentation you may have a sufficient relationship for a nondisclosure agreement. Almost universally, by the time you are discussing term sheets (and clearly at due diligence) you will have NDAs and have revealed some or all of the proprietary information.

For example, a business plan may be centered around a system for generating and processing medical records using specially formulated inks, printers, and an imager adapted for rapid scanning and 100% accuracy in recognition and processing of the characters. In a first meeting, you might state that you have a system that enables the processing of a 100 bed hospital’s records in thirty minutes. In a later presentation, you might mention the novel ink, printer, and imager. In later presentations or due diligence, you would mention the composition, structure, and process. Be aware that not all investors are open to this approach – Angies’ Angels may be open to this approach while Victor’s Ventures may not. You should know what you are prepared to disclose before each presentation.

A third approach is to risk disclosure. To be sure, you are taking a risk. Investors openly state that they hear many pitches. They also openly state they converse and network with other investors. They also openly state that they provide mentorship to companies. The volume of information from the pitches and that open environment support a reasonable possibility of public or private disclosure of your proprietary information, even inadvertent disclosure. On the other hand, are you dealing with a reputable investor who wants to remain in the business? Are you dealing with someone who has a portfolio built upon others’ business plans? If so, why would they shoot themselves in the foot? Moreover, is the possible funding worth more than the risk of intellectual property disclosure or misappropriation? Could the first mover advantage from the funding outweigh the risk of disclosure?

The approach you choose should fit the intellectual property at issue, the business plan, the investors, and the risk tolerance of the team, among other factors. The above options should help you pitch while considering the preservation of your intellectual property rights.

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