Sometimes the most genius of ideas are born from looking at a problem through a different lens. Brothers Frank and Paul Austin can certainly attest to that. They invented ZYclip, a screw-less eyeglass frame design that revolutionises the way eyewear frames can be built.
An engineer and industrial designer by trade, Frank started a very successful lighting design and manufacturing company (Nimbus Lighting) in 1972. The design of the lighting products has been centred around clip together technology and this experience helped them develop the ZYclip system. The idea for the ZYclip system came from Frank’s dissatisfaction with how sunglasses are designed. He could never find any particular shape that he liked in one frame, and thought there must be a better way to design eyewear that could incorporate clip together technology and offer consumers a choice of not only screwless hinges but also frame shapes that are interchangeable.
Inspired by the ‘clip-on’ technology that features in their lighting products, the brothers set about creating an optical frame that wouldn’t require any screws, could be made in different colours, and was easily detachable to provide wearers with different looks.
Around 2011, armed with designs and prototypes, Frank and Paul consulted with James & Wells partner Jonathan Lucas to develop a strategy for protecting and commercialising their invention. They have worked with Jonathan, who specialises in patents, for several years. “When Frank and Paul came to me with their initial designs, I thought they looked really promising. They were clearly experienced businessmen and skilled designers who understood the need to balance aesthetics and ease of use while considering manufacturing cost,” said Jonathan, adding “people think hugely complicated inventions are needed to obtain patents. But so many good designs are simple or involve relatively small changes to existing technology. If they do the job better than what is already out there, a patent might be possible.”
Jonathan was able to assess the patentability of their idea, establish whether there was freedom to operate, and help guide their thinking around how they could leverage their IP. Rather than manufacture the product themselves, the brothers hoped to license their design to an eyewear company, so they worked with Jonathan to realise this vision, and ensure any deal they entered into would be in their best interests.
“We enjoy the design process – finding solutions to problems and tweaking the product until it is perfect,” said Paul. “We didn’t really want to build an eyewear company from scratch; instead we preferred to partner with an established, reputable retailer.”
Jonathan says licensing can be a great option. When compared to self-manufacturing, there is less investment required and less risk, businesses become profitable faster and can access potentially-tricky markets. It also allows inventors and designers to focus on the areas they enjoy and are strongest in rather than worrying about operations and management. Having IP protection in place gives licensees the assurance that they have sole access to the innovative technology.
In 2013, after a lot of experimenting and refinement of their concept, Frank and Paul approached the Australasian team of eyewear company Specsavers – the third largest prescription eyewear company in the world. Headquartered in England, Specsavers have retail stores in several European countries, Australia and New Zealand.
They loved the product and eventually signed a licensing agreement giving them certain distribution rights to the technology around the world.
“We had heard a lot about Specsavers and liked the way the company gives back to society. But we were also aware how difficult it is for larger, more established companies to adopt disruptive technologies. Specsavers loved the concept and have introduced it into their ranges, a big call for such a large company. We now hope that they will eventually use this screw-less method in all their glasses frames,” said Paul.
The partnership with Specsavers has been truly collaborative, with the brothers being able to customise the product to Specsavers’ needs. They provided the initial drawings for the components, then Specsavers designed the frames around them. “We used the mechanism from our prototype but incorporated Specsavers’ insights to create a product that was right for their customer,” said Paul.
The end result? A modern, comfortable, feather-light range of screw-less frames which are available in vibrant colours to suit both men and women has been launched by Specsavers into 380 stores across New Zealand and Australia . There is potential to extend distribution to a network of 1800 Specsavers stores internationally.
Jonathan isn’t surprised that the brothers have achieved so much with their latest venture. He says, “Paul and Frank are dynamic, clever and easy to work with. They respect professional advice and have a lot of commercial nous. They understood that they had to create their own opportunity and I was impressed at how fast they were able to secure a deal.”
Frank is quick to acknowledge Jonathan’s role in their success. “Over forty years we have dealt with a number of patent attorneys. Jonathan stands out. His experience and knowledge of IP enabled him to advise, coax and, at times, challenge us to come up with solutions. As a result, what started as a simple idea has become a commercially-viable method of making eyewear.”
Looking to the future, the brothers have their sights set on the United States, where Specsavers don’t operate. They plan to sign a similar deal with a US retail chain. Bright optics indeed.