Inside business: The battle of the beakers

A new spill-proof cup for toddlers was a winner. Then the big boys joined in. Roger Trapp reports
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FOR SOMEBODY who has apparently solved a problem that has bedevilled generations of parents, Mandy Haberman is remarkably underwhelmed.

Mrs Haberman invented a valve for a spill-proof child's trainer cup. That was the easy part. Taking out a patent on the design and bringing it to market was harder: she had to spend a small fortune and then she became embroiled in a legal case when one of the world's leading makers of baby accessories introduced a similar product.

For now, Mrs Haberman and V&A Marketing, the company with which she teamed up to make and market the Spill-Proof Anywayup Cup, are victorious. Earlier this month, the High Court upheld their claim against Jackel International, maker of Tommee Tippee, for alleged copying of her patented invention. But she is not basking in the success - and not just because Jackel has been granted leave to appeal, so that she has to wait an anxious three weeks to see if it decides to go to the Court of Appeal.

She says the legal process of challenging a company the size of Jackel has been daunting. "I believed that the grant of a patent fully protected my product, It was horrendous to discover that Tommee Tippee had infringed my patent and that it was able to question the validity of my patent in court. Fortunately, the action has been successful and should give confidence to other small inventors."

The saga began in 1990, when she was at a friend's house with her youngest child. Another visitor was there with her toddler, who was in constant danger of staining the carpets by shaking her beaker around. "I thought, there must be a better way," says Mrs Haberman.

She was familiar with other products that dealt with the problem by having lids that could be turned to close, or required an inner lid to be inserted when the child was not using it. With all of them, "you had to intervene to make them seal."

Having previously been involved in inventing a feeder for babies with sucking problems, she applied the same thinking and came up with the idea of a valve fitted to the cup lid. Made of a very thin soft membrane, this would open when the baby sucked and close when it stopped - preventing spills. The invention was recognised by the Design Council last July, when it made the cup a "millennium product" for being among the most innovative products designed and produced in Britain.

Once she had developed the idea she joined up with V&A, and in 1995 they made a number of prototypes to show at exhibitions. The two events they attended produced pounds 10,000 worth of advance orders. As Mrs Haberman says: "We felt we had to make it."

They found a company to which they sub-contracted the manufacturing and went into production - putting the first orders out in March 1996. The initial interest at the exhibitions was reflected in rapidly rising sales. After a short while the product was being sold in Tesco.

With demand growing, the cup was redesigned by Sebastian Conran and V&A decided to invest in its own factory. While Mrs Haberman continued to work from her home in Hertfordshire, V&A Plastics, as the new unit was called, was opened in Cardiff, employing 70 people making and packaging about 60,000 cups a week.

Then, on 11 August 1998, Mrs Haberman saw a Tommee Tippee cup that looked a lot like hers - or at least like the early prototype. By 14 August a writ had been served on Jackel, but the damage had already been done. "Our market fell from underneath us," says Mrs Haberman. Sales nearly halved. "It was an ordeal and I never want to go through anything like that again."

For the moment, the heat is off. Thanks to an injunction preventing further infringement of the patent, the threat of lay-offs for the workers in Cardiff has been lifted. And, while the High Court assesses the level of damages and costs Jackel will have to pay if it decides not to pursue the case, Mrs Haberman and V&A are looking ahead. A new cup is due in June and there are also plans for a range of tableware called Anyware.

Jackel is thought likely to go for the appeal, which would be heard in about 18 months. Meanwhile, it says it has substituted the valve system with two alternative "tried and tested" leakproof systems. David Jones, UK marketing director, said in a statement that the company was "naturally extremely disappointed by the ruling", and added that it had a long history of new product development. "We have always welcomed competition and will continue to provide the best range of cups and accessories on the market."

Mrs Haberman's solicitor, the City firm of Paisner & Co, said the case showed how "small companies can successfully protect their creativity, however powerful their competitor".

But it is clear that for all the entreaties for inventors to take out patents, this onerous pro-cess is not enough to ensure protection. Because judges tend to favour challenges to patents unless the product is genuinely innovative, individuals need to get advice on the best way to take out a patent and be ready to square up to powerful rivals.

This is a situation familiar to the likes of James Dyson, who endured many setbacks before being hailed an "instant success" for his bagless vacuum cleaner. But it is not highlighted by ministers stressing the importance of innovation.