Someone recently asked me how I went from being a satellite engineer to an intellectual property and patent professional. As I reflected upon my career path, a quote I’ve seen on the Internet popped into my head: “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” From my perspective, innovation is too often a missed opportunity whose cost to innovators and society is very expensive. My own experience reveals that the missing link is intellectual property. Maximizing innovation’s benefits to society and its innovators requires proper IP strategies. Without them, innovators miss out on the rewards and society misses out on the benefits of innovation.
I was fortunate to begin my satellite engineering career with an opportunity most of my fellow students only dreamt about – working on a small scientific satellite from its original mission concept all the way through to early on-orbit phases. While this work was immensely satisfying, I soon discovered there was a whole other aspect for which I was unprepared: The many issues that arise in attempting to transfer the results of scientific space-tech research into commercial markets.
This wider application of space-tech is the Holy Grail for any researcher or scientist, and there are many examples of the enormous benefits to society when this process is successful. From solar panels to implantable heart monitors; from cancer therapy to light?weight materials; and from water?purification systems to improved computing systems. These are just a few instances of space technology applied to consumer markets and everyday life (see Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration, International Space Exploration Coordination Group, September 2013).
When I fully realized the vital role the protection of the technology with a patent portfolio plays in allowing the process of transferring the technology to commercial markets, making a career move into the realm of intellectual property felt both natural and necessary. The IP dimension is the key that unlocks doors by incentivizing the further investments required for promoting, industrializing and commercializing the technology while at the same time providing adequate protection as it is presented to potential buyers and backers. And yet there are skeptics.
As Jonathan M. Barnett so brilliantly put it in Why is Everyone Afraid of IP Licensing? (Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Volume 30, January 2017):
The skeptical view approaches licensing as a threat to the social bargain that underlies IP rights. This is misguided — licensing implements that social bargain through the commercialization process without which an innovation could not reach market.
At the beginning of my transition into the IP industry, I worked for a leading global firm that fosters innovation by helping companies identify, evaluate, and maximize the value of their innovation through worldwide IP licensing programs. Although there are many benefits found in this work, there are also many detractors and attacks on patent systems. To counter these, one need only look to a sector like telecommunications, a very patent-dense industry, to see how patents can bolster and facilitate enormous technological progress, creating fertile ground for developing breakthrough products such as smart phones and tablets, both of which have deeply impacted lifestyles and economies everywhere.
Relying on patent protection and the possibility of fair rewards from IP licensing companies around the world have contributed technology to global mobile standards. They allow competitors to use one another’s work and, even more importantly, to build upon one another’s work in ways that contribute to improved standards and technological growth. Ultimately, standards and patents have unleashed an exponential technological growth that benefits everyone.
These beneficial processes are extended and accelerated even further with patent pools that provide one-stop shop solutions to acquire rights on bundles of IP owned by various parties, thereby lowering transaction costs and increasing overall efficiency.
IP licensing maximizes the results of R&D through the following processes: (1) the diffusion effect, which allows companies to use each other’s technology; (2) the exponential effect of growth when competitors can build off each other’s work; and (3) the spreading effect where technology is adopted in a sector for which it was not originally intended. These three processes enable growth, innovation and drive economies forward.
Working on fostering patent licensing and the formation of patent pools such as LTE pool formation, which included over 30 companies across the world, means working in the very core of technological progress with global innovators while promoting business models that incentivize rewarding inventors, researchers and engineers, or at least help keep them employed.
Given the complexity of many technologies, the rapidly changing nature of global markets, and the legal complexities in establishing worldwide licensing programs, it should come as no surprise that IP licensing offers benefits. When this work succeeds, everyone benefits – from innovators and IP owners to the general population as companies around the world gain greater access to new and improved technologies.
To avoid missing out on the tremendous rewards and benefits of innovation, we must take full advantage of R&D’s potential in the complex and fast-paced markets of today that offer up opportunities to aggregate and license technologies in new sectors, geographical areas and markets.
The next frontier of innovation protection and enhancement through proper IP strategies will no doubt be the Internet of Things (IoT). The complexity of the technologies involved and the need for vertical integration will yield many exciting opportunities for innovators and IP professionals. Let’s work together to make sure we don’t miss them.