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

p2

 

 

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

p3

 

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.

 

Creativity and Education

Earlier I wrote about the challenge of teaching about tools without limiting their potential applications. Many have lamented about the shortcomings of our education system in fostering creativity and teaching the students to think. The reason for this is well described in this video.

and yet this raises the obvious question, is our society really ready for all the creativity and thought which will be unleashed once we overhaul the education. The simple answer is no. The main reason for this is that our perception of the world, the work we do, and the way we live is ultimately biased against creativity. Many times, the main activity we do is to precisely do as we learn to do. We don’t want most of our professionals to be creative, but rather to do their job well. That stands in contradiction to what we teach our children about creativity. As a result there is a culture shock, as children enter the world of the grown ups. In this respect, the action of schools is to reduce this culture shock. To prevent this we need to create a system which provides a creative outlook for people. Enable everyone, everywhere, to practice creativity, or to play, as well described by John Cleese.

So the question remains, can creativity and work be combined. The answer is of course, they must be. But in looking at various forms of art we can actually draw a conclusion that they in fact can very well be combined. Most of art combines a vision, a story, some play, and a lot of hard, dedicated and even repetitive work. Be it rehearsing music, drawing a painting, or writing computer code. The key to achieving this is passion. So as many preach, we need to do the things we are passionate about. But this is easier said than done.

The challenge we face in education is helping people identify the things they are passionate about. But in today’s competitive world, people are busy excelling rather than learning. I read somewhere about a university that strives all its students finish with as high a grade as they can. Hence they can repeat any exam until they are satisfied with their grade. This has several effects.

  • it reduces the pressure from the single exam
  • it enables students to well represent their knowledge in the grades
  • it increases the learning

But what if all students are now A students. How can an employer now decide who is best for him ? Actually our system expects the standard curve to distinguish between people. But it distinguishes on the criteria we know how to measure, which is the ability to learn specific tools, rather than the criteria we don’t yet know how to measure such as passion. If we knew how to do that, maybe education would be all about creating our identity and recognizing our passion.

Tools/Lao Tse

Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
Clay is moulded into a vessel;
Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
Walls are built around a hearth;
Because of the doors we may use the house.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not.

translated by Peter Merel

Starting to invent

Innovation

Innovation is considered one of the most important and often critical resources in modern society. It is widely researched, the refined principles are then taught and sometimes practiced, but most importantly its impact is felt every day. Because at the heart of it, innovation is about doing things differently,and every day we do something new, we participate in the innovation process around us.

Why do it ?

But innovation is also a wasteful process. Pushing the boundaries, and breaking habits requires energy, and more importantly not all new things succeed. So from an economic standpoint innovation is justified if either

  • it provides a better process
  • or it opens up new possibilities and resources

thus creating a return on the investment in innovation.

Its important to remember, innovation is not an abstract process. it is the cumulative process of many individual inventive activities. These activities range in scope from the science and technology, to design and art. Their common denominator is that they constitute something new. Creating something that previously did not exist. Interestingly, creativity is defined as the origination of something new which has value. We will touch on the value aspect later, since it is a critical enabling element in the inventive and hence innovative process.

So now we have many words, creativity,innovation, inventions, borders, resources, and we want to answer a simple question. How do we invent.

How to Invent

The answer has been given over thousands of years by demonstration, and refined into a theory by a Russian scientist called Genrich Altshuller. He named the theory TRIZ, which is the Russian acronym for the “theory of inventive problem solving”.

Today TRIZ and its variants are widely used in many fields of activity. Many books have been published on it, and many experts teach and refine it. I will describe certain aspects of TRIZ in future posts, but in this post I wanted to highlight one critical, and universal aspect of TRIZ, and that is the role of tools.

TRIZ is composed of two elements

  • Identifying a contradiction
  • Using one or more principles of invention to resolve the contradiction

It turns out the hard part is the first. It is hard, because it is not structured, and we should get back to it later. The second part, is what most people remember about the TRIZ, the toolbox of principles by which most inventions are created. Surprisingly, or not, the toolbox and tools in it are a central theme in any human activity. They are obvious in the worlds of engineering and science, but they also govern the world of art, music, cooking, and even human behavior.

Creativity is about pushing boundaries

It is simplest to exemplify this with the notion of a language. To create language related elements, be they books, stories, poems, or slogans, we must first achieve some command of the language and its rules. We need both words, and their relations. Once we have an understanding of the connections and words, we can experiment, or create, new ways of combining them. We can create sentences to our liking, and yet they need to meet some criteria of sensibility to impart information or feeling on another person. This comes back to the value criteria in the definition of creativity. Focusing on just sentences, we can in principle imagine all the sentences in the world written up. Of course, in a random approach, most of what is written has no value. So the essence of creativity, is to focus only on sentences of value. A simple way to go about that is to start from past sentences of value and make small variations in them. This seems a timid approach, and yet done consistently, and diligently, it produces volumes of prose.

Inventing follows a similar path. We start from the corpus of existing technology, and make small changes. The changes follow the rules that TRIZ documented. In this process we create something new. Sentences are designed to impart information or feeling. Inventions create value in other forms as described previously. So the the invention resulting from a small change can now be assessed for value.

To sum up

I’d like to sum up this short introduction by returning to the first TRIZ principle which is “identifying the contradiction”. Its interesting, but also fundamental that the sentence analogy carries over. A sentence can be formed in two ways. It can start as an idea, which is then cast as a sentence following established rules. Alternatively, the sentence can arise from something else, and after formation, it suddenly embodies an idea. More often, than not, its is a combination. Ideas are not fully formed before articulation. An invention is similar. The ideal picture of a contradiction requiring a solution, is not always available. It exists in places where problems are well defined as the fields of engineering. In blue ocean problems, the expanse is huge and the choice of contradictions can be random or even misleading. More often, we define contradictions, we know how to solve, and we permute existing inventions, because it is something that expands our imagination and thought.

So that is where I stand at loss of words; What is the contradiction, which stands at the basis of the art of invention. Altshuler described one solution to inventing, can we invent others ?

and more importantly,should we ?