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Looking back on 2012 and ahead to 2013, the increasingly important role of intellectual property becomes clear. More than ever, we've seen how simple ideas and inventions have transformed businesses, particularly in technology industries. Intellectual property lawsuits have kept the courts busy, and have demonstrated the tremendous under-exploited value of intellectual property assets. Through litigation, though, much of this value has been lost to legal costs. Practicing companies should take a page from the NPE book and seek new ways to maximize revenue from their IP assets, but by partnering with academia to actively seek novel and constructive licensing opportunities rather than finding new ways to engage in legal battles with competitors.
NPEs looking to maximize the value of their IP portfolios have demonstrated that patent can extract value from unexpected places: by looking to unrelated industries and products, these companies continually come up with new and innovative ways to file lawsuits against practicing companies using (often inadvertently) their inventions. Unfortunately, these lawsuits have also had the effect of stifling innovation—they are reactive to innovations made by other companies.
Proactive and Multidisciplinary
Teflon, microwaves, Scotch tape, bubble wrap, and even Viagra—each of these products was invented and patented for a different purpose than their most common modern usage. The history of invention is one of continual re-purposing, but discoveries of new uses for old inventions have most frequently been by simple chance. One way that companies can constructively profit from their IP assets is to encourage and actively seek these kinds of unexpected uses for pre-existing technologies. As technology in general advances though, increasing in specialization and complexity, discovering and understanding these possible uses is becoming increasingly difficult. To profit from these sorts of “outside the box” innovations, these companies need to increasingly rely on outside help—in the form of specialists with broad technical expertise—to help discover new uses and markets for existing technologies.
Consulting relationships such as this certainly exists, particularly in high technology fields and medicine—where actively searching for new uses of old drug patents is more common. Currently, though, these relationships are limited and still encourage specialization. Successful consultants in these fields are the ones whose focus is in developing a specialization in one particular industry. The ideal candidates for new perspectives on these existing technologies will be devoted primarily to research and development within a particular field, but not specifically focused on one particular application or industry.
Another important characteristic is independence from the company's own research and development and higher management. These individuals should be educated and engaged enough to understand the nuances of the technologies involved, but removed enough maintain a sufficiently broad multidisciplinary perspective to contribute novel insights.
Partnering with academia
In my opinion, academics involved in active research fit the bill. Companies who would like to begin to maximize the value sitting dormant in their IP portfolios should engage the help of scientists and researchers in with pre-existing technical knowledge. These researchers would be capable of approaching a company's portfolio from a different perspective, and if the right ones are chosen they could likely offer an informed multidisciplinary view the company's own researchers lack. They could examine a patent portfolio outside of the context of the company's specific products and technological directions, envision new markets, and help companies locate potential licensees for novel uses of patents within that portfolio.
Establishing a revenue sharing relationship with graduate students or professors, for example, is one way provide incentives for participation in such research efforts. By allowing these academics to work on a temporary basis, they would have the opportunity to work on multiple projects as well as their own academic research. The result would be a source of lower-cost “secondary” innovation, or pre-existing inventions used in novel ways. This could be as profitable as a company's normal innovation efforts, but would use far fewer resources by leveraging pre-existing company resources and expert knowledge.