On Tuesday evening December 11, 2018, David Hill, a the inventor of real-time 3D LiDAR, was named National Inventor of the Year by the Intellectual Property Owners (IPO) Educational Foundation at their annual celebration in Washington, DC. “We make most of the LIDARs you see on the self-driving cars,” Hill told me in an interview prior to the festivities during a reception for the honorees and sponsors, although in our brief conversations he seemed equally as proud — as you might expect — of his other patented inventions. Hill has a total of 30 patents to his credit, but was honored on this evening for his invention of real-time 3D LiDAR for autonomous vehicles. An invention he completed after competing as one of the original entrants in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005.
When asked whether self-driving cars will be a reality during our lifetime, Hill responded quickly by asking: “How fast do you want to go?” And that is the important question facing the autonomous vehicle industry, as innovators like Hill ponder the transition from more than a century of driving history to a future where autonomous driving is a widespread reality for the everyday person.
“There is an expectation that we are going to save lives, but that is putting the cart before the horse,” Hill explained. “First, you have to get the technology debugged, and then eventually I think we all believe that we will do a significant improvement in the overall safety of transportation. But just trying to come out of the chute with a perfect code set— I don’t know how to do that… for every five minutes I spend writing code it is a half-hour or hour to get rid of the bugs in it.”
The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was actor John O’Hurley, who was both funny, entertaining and appropriately themed, continuing to sing the much needed praises of the enormous benefits of imagination. “The greatest tragedy is that people believe the greatest ideas live in the minds of others,” Hurley said to open up the evening.
During his acceptance speech, Hill would tell the assembled audience of industry dignitaries that his company is an intellectual property company. “You may think we are in the business of making LiDAR, but we are in the business of figuring out the knowledge required to build LIDAR, which is where the royalty payments will come from,” Hill told a clearly sympathetic audience.
Indeed, without intellectual property protections it makes it impossible for an innovator to compete, raise money, and succeed in business. That was a story told by Joe Kiani, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Masimo, who receive the IPO Education Foundation’s first IP Champion Award.
“While the IP laws are still better than any other country, they aren’t as good as they used to be,” Kiani said on the video introducing himself before receiving the IP Champion Award. Kiani would explain that he doesn’t think of what IP laws mean to Massimo today, but what they would mean for Massimo back in 1980. IP laws encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, he explained.
While those who are not fans of patents, or intellectual property, incorrectly say — as if it is well known, axiomatic truth — that investors do not care about patents, or if innovators have patents they are never read or considered, Kiani told a very different story. A story that rings true to those in industry who know better, and see beyond the half-truths and unfortunate misrepresentations of those who would prefer to see the demise of the U.S. patent system.
“Without a strong patent system, I wouldn’t have been able to raise the money to start Massimo, I wouldn’t have been able to protect the IP from the company that had 80-90% of the marketshare of the older technology, which had made an imitation of product which wasn’t as good as our product, but it was clouding the market,” Kiani said during his acceptance speech. “And we wouldn’t have been able to continue innovating.”
But it was the patent applications that mattered the most at the beginning for Kiani and his fledgling company. He explained:
I was 24 when I started Massimo. Just turned 24 and I took a $40,000 loan on my condo. And I didn’t have a history of doing any of this. And we had written our patent application, and began with three pending applications, meeting with the venture capitalists to try to raise money. And at the time, this is 1991, a couple of years after I started the company in 1989, these Venture Capitalists hired lawyers to look at our patent applications that hadn’t yet even published or issued yet, to see if would we likely get a strong patent, and would it give us the chance to break into the market.
So, it really took that strong patent system at the time to help us get going. And yes today, we have come far. We are now monitoring over 100 million people worldwide, our revenues are almost $1 billion, we have nearly 5000 employees, and more importantly we continued to innovate. We are excited about some of the new innovations that we are coming out with, that should help patient safety and outcomes by automating hospitals or protecting people at home on opioid prescriptions.
This system works. This system has worked. I am the proof of it that we have a great patent office, we have a great judiciary system, judges’ and juries who can tell the truth from falsehood and we need to protect it. A lot has changed during our growth. But one of the things that has not changed is our philosophy and our actions when it comes to intellectual property. We believe that ownership can help spur economies. Knowing where your boundaries are. And when it comes to an innovation economy, we believe that patent ownership is even more essential.
So, I ask you all to please continue doing what you’re doing take the long look view when it comes to IP. Err on the side of a patent holder and not the infringer. Err on the side of making sure, yes, it is hard to prove willfulness, but not impossible. That injunctions aren’t the exception and damages don’t go away from the Georgia Pacific caselaw. Because otherwise it is so easy as you become bigger, my size of a company, to just ram forward, not respect other people’s IP, and trade on your name, and trade on what you built in the past instead of keeping your innovation. So again, thank you so much for this incredible honor that you have given me tonight. Being the first IP champion, I hope I won’t ruin it for the next person, maybe make it easier for the next person. But literally, we would not be here without a strong patent system, and we need to protect that so that future inventors, future Masimos will hopefully help us solve even bigger problems, more unsolvable problems that cannot only save our civilization, but that continues spurring our economy forward.
Great words to close out the night from a true IP Champion. Let the system work, and err on the side of the innovator, not the infringer. Once upon a time that was considered to be self-evident and not in need of saying. How times have changed.