Thursday, 29th March, 2018

Crucial connections

Just over a decade ago, Blair McPheat came up with a seemingly simple device that’s solved a big problem for manufacturers. With his product now sold into more than 100 countries, protecting it has been essential.

 In 2006 McPheat dreamed up a solution to an issue faced by New Zealand milk powder producers. His product, the BFM®fitting, is a flexible tube that can be clipped onto existing machinery to prevent dust from dry products leaking into the environment.

 ‘It seals out 100% of gas, water and air, and no dust can escape,’ explains McPheat. ‘Unlike other systems, you can flick the fitting off with your hand so there’s no tool required. It’s very hygienic and clean, and yet so simple. It’s also a lot more explosion proof, as many of those dusts are quite dangerous when they’re suspended in air.’

BFM Global now has international customers in four main industries: food, pharmaceutical, petrochemical and minerals. McPheat believes the potential market is massive, and the company is still just scratching the surface, gathering the low-hanging fruit and branching into some extremely lucrative markets.

‘We now have 44 distributors that stock our product and sell it within our regions, and we’re in over 100 countries,’ he says. ‘The BFM®fitting has been taken up by many OEM (original equipment manufacturer) companies that build plants and send them all over the world, so we’ve set up distributors wherever our product is turning up.’

Already familiar with the value of patent protection, McPheat wisely decided to consult with AJ Park and move to protect his IP before showing a prototype to a potential customer.

Early on we discussed strategy with AJ Park and we put a flag in the ground nice and early. We took out global protection under the PCT system, which gave us that extra 18 months in which to decide the markets we wanted to operate in. AJ Park’s advice in these early days was extremely helpful.

For the past decade, McPheat has been working closely with patent attorney Anton Blijlevens to expand and refine the company’s IP protection. Making clear decisions has been critical.

‘If you have a concept or idea you think is going to be a world beater, you have to take that step,’ advises McPheat. ‘Taking out patents is a big capital decision—there’s no point having patents unless you’re prepared to back them up.

‘I knew that if we wanted to have a good 20-year lead on everyone, we needed to invest in IP protection. It’s comforting when you have a patent that’s firm and strong. As I travel around the world so often the very first question everyone asks is ‘do you have a patent on this?’ You think, thank goodness I did that. It justifies the expenditure. It’s an expensive process but you can reap the rewards if it really is a good product.’

BFM Fitting secondary image4

Blijlevens agrees that BFM Global took IP protection very seriously.

‘From the start they could see the strategy we’d recommended would work,’ he says. ‘When it came to where to protect it was a matter of prioritising the markets their product was already in, as well as those that were seriously on their radar. ’

Recently, one of BFM Global’s Chinese distributors discovered that their product was in fact being copied by two different companies. McPheat decided to prosecute and won, sending out a clear message to others intent on infringing his IP.

‘It turned out the best way to tackle it in China was by using a local law firm. We were thrilled to win the case and to learn that the AJ Park patents were very strong. Winning certainly set a precedent, and our distributors know that if they have any problems, to let us know and we’ll sort it out.

‘With our product, if we let these companies continue to copy our designs, there’s no question it would grow. It’s a good product but someone was trying to knock it off and make it cheaply and badly, so that devalues our reputation.’

The company’s patents will last well beyond their lifespan because of the strong brand and reputation BFM Global has built for itself, says Blijlevens.

‘When the patents expire, the protection will be gone for the concept but that fact that BFM Global has established its reputation in the industry gives them a huge advantage over their competitors. People know they can trust the product’s reliability. It’s a safe bet, particularly in the food-processing industry where you can’t afford to get things wrong. It becomes quite a valuable asset because it’s their version of the flexible connector that people will specify because of its reputation.’

Written by: Deirdre Coleman 
Photo credit: Shaun Lee