Kalido, the software supplier spun out of Shell's in-house IT operation, this week received a patent for its datawarehouse products.
In a project that may have lessons for other innovative IT departments, Kalido software, which aids flexible access to business data, is now protected in the UK.
It all started in the mid-1990s in the IT research department at the oil company. "R&D was trying to come up with a flexible way of designing data models that would last longer," said Andy Hayler, Kalido's chief executive.
Most datawarehouses struggle to cope with business change and different "business semantics" around the globe. Re-engineering systems to account for these variations can be time-consuming and expensive.
Originally the system Shell developed, dubbed Genie, was first implemented in one of the company's Australian business units, where IT workers found it cut the time for re-engineering a system from months to hours.
In 1998, Shell Services was formed to provide IT for Shell business units and find markets outside Shell. "I recognised that Genie could be a commercial product, but at the time we had no remit to take it to market," Hayler said. "It was a lucky coincidence that with Shell Services the mechanism came along."
Renamed Kalido, the project remained a small part of Shell Services. "I was running information management consultancy with a group of 290 people. The Kalido bit was lurking in the corner - there were probably 12 people looking at it."
Shell Services applied for a patent for Kalido in 1998 and the first commercial product was launched in 1999. In 2001, Kalido was launched as a distinct company from Shell. Business users now include Unilever, Philips and Cadbury Schweppes.
The patent for Kalido has taken nearly five years to be approved in the UK, while applications in US and across the globe are still pending.
IT departments considering patenting their innovations should make sure they have the business backing for the long haul, said David Musker, partner at law firm RGC Jenkins, who acted for Kalido in the company's patent application. "It is important that you have the right expectations," he said. "The real challenge is cost and time."
The next task is to capture a clear description of how the technology is implemented in the patent application. The Kalido application had to withstand a legal challenge, which caused further delay.
Although patenting software is clearly a tough challenge for IT departments, the success of Kalido shows that in some cases it can pay off.
Should you patent your software?
According to specialist intellectual property and IT lawyer David Musker, partner at law firm RGC Jenkins, IT departments must consider two issues before trying to patent their software:
- Can your company keep it a secret? If you only intend to use the technology in-house then it may be easier to keep it under wraps
- Does the development need protection? In some cases there is no value in protecting the invention - for example, when open source software is involved.