Patent Strategy

To chart a route leading from a great idea to a strong patent (portfolio) one needs a ‘Patent Strategy’.   Charting routes is a tricky business, especially when we consider that patents should relate to things which would come to pass  in the next 20 years.   A way I found useful for organizing the patent strategy for myself or for my clients is a patent strategy chart of which an example is shown below


The chart has two axis, one axis describes the different elements of the device, and the second axis describes the function.  The first aspect of the chart is that it helps drill down into the details of the invention.  The second aspect is that it helps to map out areas for which the current invention may not be protected, or alternatively areas where currently there is no inventive step and which may warrant a dedicated ideation session.  The concept is best explained with an example and we can take a car as a field in which we want to invent.   Breaking down the car into its elements can yield the following components (body, drive train, engine, power source (hydrogen, gas, battery), sensors, control, etc.).  When writing the components, we can break down into broader or tighter categories, depending on the anticipated scope. While it seems that function is many times a greater source of innovation, sometimes components can also be used in a creative way.  Examples in the car can include, heads up display, screens, radar, or even a swivel chair.  Adding a component by itself is not inventive, however integrating it into the car, and addressing its functionality might be inventive.  Examples of functions can include, getting from A to B, fuel efficiency, fun, playing media, comfort, sleeping, safety, etc.  Of course cars are examples of systems which are protected by thousands of patents, so the chart should focus on the areas of invention.  The invention can be broad, like flying cars, to narrow like a new method for wiping water off the windshield.  If we take the latter example, and our invention is composed of a transparent, windshield wiper .  The principle of operation is ultrasonic transducers combined with a special glass formation process.  An example of a chart can be




After we have a chart, we can place the idea or ideas we have on the chart, for example



In this example, we have three ideas, with some overlap between the ideas.  We have also highlighted white space areas where we currently do not have any ideas and where we are not protected by the current idea pool.  The chart is also useful in mapping out the current state of art, and identifying white space areas in the invention field.  Obviously a solid patent strategy portrayed in this manner provides a lucid picture of areas of  ‘freedom to operate’ while at the same time highlighting areas which should be the focus of ideation sessions or invention creation.

As always in strategy, as in other aspects of life, the devil is in the details.  Adopting the patent strategy chart is a good start to building strategic patent portfolios,  but they are no alternative to sound patent counselling from experienced patent attorneys.



A rational coprocessor

My previous discussion on input devices, brings to mind another topic. As we consider the role of connected devices and electronic helpers the prevailing concept is of an imaginary helper. Something that takes care of the boring chores and fills our life with fun and creativity. We tend to think of the helper much in terms that we have thought about calculators many eons ago. They can do the math but always fall short of being a human. Scifi has of course explored what happens when robots develop feelings and become humans. Yet, no one has yet suggested the unfathomable and perhaps most important electronic aide we need; a rational co processor.
In fact, people always would argue against it, after all Spock from Star Trek was above all rational but lacked feeling. But I am not advocating loss or relegation of feeling. The rational co processor would provide that missing element in any comparative shopping application- the option of not buying. After all, from soft drinks to politicians our world is filled with means to manipulate our irrational part and induce us to buy, vote, or act in certain ways. Its really amazing to consider how much of the GDP is actually stuff which we don’t need but are induced to buy. So if the rational co processor was to take hold, would that bring the economy to a grinding halt ?

On Mice and Humans; thoughts on input devices

From the Microsoft Kinect, Apple’s Siri to Intel’s PerC, organizations are looking for the next thing after touch screens, mice and keyboards.

The quest overshadows the fact that new input devices take a long time to mature. If one examines the history of the computer mouse, its clear that time to mass adoption was more than 20 years. A similar view of the touch screen can trace its origins to the 80’s and mass adoption occurring twenty years later with the touch screen smart phone.

New input devices typically attempt to provide a ‘natural’ user interface, and yet the combination of technology under performance as well as misdirection of the role of the user interface result in a long time to mass adoption.

Stepping back for a moment we can ask ourselves, what is the role of a input device. The answer can encompass a wide range of options from gaming to content creation, and more often than not communication person to person or person to machine. An interesting observation is that while our thoughts are often multifaceted and parallel, our input device interaction, wether typing, speech or gesture is slow and serial.

Gesture recognition is garnering significant attention as people envision electronic devices reading our gestures to enable a sleeker human interface. The early success of the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect have prompted huge investments and R&D efforts. Yet two years after introduction, the Kinect is not the game changer Microsoft had hoped for. Looking at gesture recognition with a view to past adoption curves, and with a view to its actual usability, it’s clear that the companies adopting an aggressive path have forgotten the lessens from books like the innovators dilemma or crossing the chasm. While they are diligently developing the technology they should be looking for a killer app, something that goes beyond cool. The app doesn’t need a huge market, but it should be critical enough to make a paradigm shift. In its absence, the adoption curve would sway between the wind of cool, and overhyped expectations.

Selling Ideas

A Level Playfield
Apps are a great example of reducing the required resources to take a software idea to revenue. The critical question is what is the Return On Investment for the App market. This question has two aspects. The first relates to any investment decision in apps. The second is more general and holds lessons for any idea market.
App Statistics
App stores publish general statistics on downloads, and overall income, but refrain from publishing detailed statistics. Running through the published numbers reveals that apps in general do not provide a return on investment. The simple calculation is dividing the announced income from apps by the number of apps in the App Store resulting in an income of less than $10,000 per app. Since the required development cost of an app is estimated at around $50,000, it’s clear the ROI is difficult to justify. This also explains the absence of detailed statistics and a focus on success stories. After all success stories, as the lottery industry well knows, are a strong sales driver for app developers.
So the problem with lowering the barrier to revenue is that it promotes a gambling approach, where the thrill of participation offsets the low potential of winning. Another advantage of apps is the fact revenue is often not the primary success driver and downloads often count as the critical parameter. This works well for app developers as it provides short term measures of success.
Between Apps and Ideas
While apps create a thrill, and provide short term measures for success, many other idea markets lack these characteristics. Patents for example, have an ROI of several years, and there is little measure of intermediate success. One way to resolve these problems is creating idea competitions. Most of the crowd sourcing and open innovation sites use competitions to create the required thrill and induce idea submission. The problem with this approach is the ROI for the inventor. If there are hundreds of participants and only one or two winning solutions it’s clear the ROI doesn’t justify investment of time or resources. This also highlights the scalability challenge of open innovation sites.
Inventor Networks
A possible solution is to create an inventor network. After all in inventing, like in anything else, it’s all about the people. The network through peer review and mentorship creates a community spirit which addresses the time to ROI. The network should include an active buyer community which helps direct the invention process, provides feedback and even some short term monetary motivation. Intellectual Ventures is a great example of an early innovator in this space. It is actively building a worldwide inventor network. Inventors in the network are exposed to request for inventions as well as other inventors and collaboration opportunities. The inventors can submit their ideas to IV, and IV partners with inventors on bringing the best of these ideas to market. Future inventor networks may be fashioned as a social network where ideas are developed between network members and directed by other members towards buyers. But this already is the start of the pitch of my next startup.
To sum, I am a strong believer in idea markets and open innovation and their potential to accelerate innovation and create a better world. Drawing on lessons from the current activities in this field, I think the key elements to enable a sustainable idea market are

  • return on investment
  • active engagement model
  • potential for large upside – success stories