Real-life IP: Hunter Safety Lab

Yesterday we introduced our new series Real-life IP, which sets out to find out how real companies use intellectual property. Our interviews start today, with one of the cool companies Duon works with, Hunter Safety Lab.

Hunter Safety Lab Ltd (HSL) is a Wellington-based company, co-founded by Michael Hunter and Dave Grove. They make cutting edge safety systems for hunting, to reduce the huge number of accidents every year where someone shoots their hunting partner.

We sat down and talked to Mike about Hunter Safety Lab.

Mike Scott and Dave Grove, Founders of Hunter Safety Lab.
Mike Scott and Dave Grove, Founders of Hunter Safety Lab

What do you make?

Our flagship product, IRIS, is an alert system that sounds an alarm if a hunter points their gun at another hunter. IRIS stands for ‘infrared retro-reflector identification system’.

How long have you been in business?

I actually started HSL in 2009 with another business partner and a different alarm system. That didn’t work out, but we changed the product to the current design, Dave came on board as my co-founder and chief product designer, and it’s been all go since then!

What do you think the next few years ahead looks like?

Selling lots, I hope! We want to be in the US market, as well as in Europe. We also have a few new products and technology ideas floating around which we are talking to partners about, so there’ll be new things coming through to add to the IRIS safety system.

Who do you sell to?

We sell directly to hunting and outdoor stores in NZ, but are working with a distributor in the US. We also sell in trade stores, and you can buy IRIS online too. We sell online through our own website and IRIS products will soon also be sold by Amazon and Overstock.com. We now have product in some NZ hunting stores and are establishing retail channels in the US.

Where did you get investment from?

We started with funding from friends and family, but the majority of our funds have come through Wellington angel investors (matched by NZVIF) and private investors.

Initially we continued to work full time, and we funded that proof of concept prototype with our own money, an investment from ourselves. Then we got our first external investor in, and then we got Angel Investment, and now we’re closing another round of angel investment. Yeah, it’s a much longer and more expensive process than you think.

The IRIS safety system shown on a rifle
The IRIS safety system

What has been challenging about starting up a business?

Well, everything really! Everything is just way harder than you think, especially since most of [our] components were outsourced. It would have been nice to have more control of the outcomes, but when everything is outsourced and you get things from all around the world, managing that is challenging.

How does your business use intellectual property?

We have patented our core technology in NZ and internationally and use patent searching to investigate our new ideas and find out whether we can protect them.

As well as patenting IRIS [the technology], we have trade marks for the name [IRIS].

In trademarks, we filed the one trademark internationally, the IRIS one. Currently we have also registered “Hunter Safety Lab”, and our slogan, “Live out there” as trade marks in New Zealand, but we haven’t registered them overseas for cost reasons but we probably [will] in the future.

Okay, and other forms of IP, like copyrights and trade secrets – what does your business use?

For us, it’s pretty much all of those things; all our printed materials and, I believe, our circuit boards and things are covered by copyright. We’ve also looked at industrial design patents and registered designs. Well, we haven’t got any of those currently, but that is something that we will consider at certain points along the process. It just hasn’t been quite appropriate yet.

Where did/do you go to get information about IP?

We work with Julie Crisford at Duon, and she has helped us patent search and apply for NZ and US patents and international trademarks. We’ve found real value in working with Julie as she has a thorough understanding of the process, and helps us shape our strategic approach to IP protection.

What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about IP that you didn’t know before you started all this?

Well, I always knew it was expensive [he laughs]. Yeah, I don’t know. I have learned a lot about the value of trade marks, is probably one of the big things, and how they can potentially be much more valuable in the long term than, say, patents and things can, because it’s all about your brand if you can build that up successfully.

I was surprised how relatively easily our patent went through; it was quite a good thing. I was preparing for a bit more opposition on that one; you never know, it might still come but having it granted in the U.S. is a great start.

Will you be using IP in the future of your business?

For sure! Having the patent and trade mark has helped us get investment to this point and it has also been a great advantage when entering joint ventures in the US. One of the first things we were asked when we exhibited in trade shows in the US was about our patent, and having one meant that companies would talk to us instead of just stealing our idea. We have a joint development agreement with a big US company for some of our new technology which wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have IP.

What advice would you give other business people about IP?

Talk to someone who knows what they’re doing and be prepared to learn heaps. There’s all types of IP out there and lots of people with knowledge they got ages ago who haven’t kept up with changes in the law. Ask a professional about IP and don’t listen to those that think they know but don’t specialise in it.

Articles in the Real-life IP series:

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