How Unilin Group turned patents into a successful business
This past year Unilin Technologies achieved its best ever result. What started with a single revolutionary patent in the nineties has developed into a unique business model. Today the division brings knowledge and expertise on patents and licences to its own group, its industry and far beyond.
“Our ambition is to share our expertise with anyone looking to innovate”, says Bart Van der Stockt, president of Unilin Technologies, thereby summarising the core of Unilin Technologies’ activities. Expertise to translate innovation into patents and subsequently share those patented technologies through licences.
Laminate forever changed
One impressive invention kickstarted this process: Uniclic, Quick-Step’s innovative click system. This invention not only revolutionised the laminate market but the flooring industry in its entirety. To understand its impact we must return to 1996, when Unilin Group took out a patent on a revolutionary click system to connect floor panels without adhesive, later baptised ‘Uniclic’. As it turns out this was a very wise decision.
“In the nineties laminate flooring was not very popular, partly because this cheaper version of parquet flooring was very impractical to install. It either had to be glued or nailed to the substrate, a dirty and cumbersome job”, Bart explains.
A flash of genius
But everything changed when someone at Unilin Group, sitting around the kitchen table, came up with the idea to click the panels into each other using an ingenuous click system. “I call it a flash of genius because it’s an excellent invention that wasn’t the end product of years of research by hundreds of people, it’s simply a very good idea. Obviously a lot more effort went into the optimisation than just the patenting process. Testing, tweaking, more testing and more tweaking. I have great faith in that approach”, he continues.
In 1996 the idea was anchored in a patent but licencing wasn’t on the horizon yet. “It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when one of our competitors asked if they could use the Uniclic system that the initial seed was planted. And then that eternal question crops up: ‘To licence or not to licence’.”
To licence or not to licence
Bart: “It’s a question many companies struggle with. Your patent gives you the exclusive right to your invention but licencing means you would nevertheless let others benefit from it as well. Many companies feel they are better off keeping it to themselves. Personally I disagree, and Unilin Group’s board of directors felt the same way.”
Licencing Uniclic not only gave Unilin Group a tremendous boost but the laminate world as a whole. “It has grown into a huge category in the floor coverings landscape. Sharing the patented technology through licencing contracts not only gave us a bigger slice of the cake; in one fell swoop we made the cake itself that much bigger. Subseuqently we concluded one licencing contract after another and that’s when we realised: we have to build on this.”
Best ever results
R&D started to gain importance within the company. “It went beyond hoping for a new flash of genius, innovation became an actual strategy. Our colleagues from R&D kept coming up with fresh innovations, which we patented and then licenced.”
“We turned it into a full-fledged business model. We contacted our licencing clients, proposed our new innovative solutions and established long-term collaborations. The strategy was a roaring success. Last year we achieved our best ever results within Unilin Technologies.”
Also help other companies
Now Bart and his team want to expand this expertise and reputation to the rest of the world. “We are currently working on closely related sectors: think of panels, insulation and other technologies within the group. The next layer where we are making important strides involves the companies owned by our parent company Mohawk, where we also want to reach out to the markets of ceramic tiles and broadloom carpet.”
And our ambitions don’t stop there. “We also want to help other businesses with their inventions. Over the years we have developed astounding expertise and an extensive network, which we want to share with others. Sometimes companies develop amazing inventions but they lack the vision and knowledge to make the most of them. We can provide this, as a partner, in the aim of creating a win-win situation for all parties.”
That is why continuing to innovate is crucial to Bart: “Everything hinges on innovation. We depend on the ideas and new technologies we are presented with. Fortunately Unilin Group is on the same page and innovation is one of the core values of our company. Resting on our laurels is not an option”.