“It is the outsiders, the innovators and creative minds who found the startups and take on huge risks, while investing enormous time and money to bring the next step to the market…. But the patent system protecting these outsiders is fully broken. The incentives are all backwards.”
Every once in a while, a new invention changes an industry and sometimes even the world. In grade school, we all learned about some of these great inventions – the cotton gin, the lightbulb, the telephone, etc. Today, like no time in history, we are witnessing an explosion of innovation in every facet of life. Many of these inventions change the way we live our lives. But most of today’s great inventions are hidden behind touch screens or in the bowel of data centers. They are often not well understood, nor well known.
Throughout history, many great inventions do not originate from inventors working in the industries that they forever change. Great inventors are most often outsiders unencumbered by an industry’s culture and thereby granted the freedom to do it in a different way. For example, Eli Whitney was not a cotton farmer when he invented the cotton gin; Filo Farnsworth invented the core concepts of his image dissector tube (first electronic television tube) when he was in high school farming; Alexander Graham Bell was working in hearing impairment when he invented the telephone; and Sergey Brin and Larry Page were college students when they invented Google’s search algorithm. The list of inventors who changed industries from the outside is long and continues to grow.
Outsiders Changed the Wireless Industry Forever
Technology experts David Sorrels and Greg Rawlins are outsiders who changed an industry. They invented a revolutionary way of processing radio frequency (RF) signals at ParkerVision, a Jacksonville, Florida based company. That technology is now in every smartphone we use today, and it is that invention which enabled technology giant Qualcomm to consolidate the smartphone chip market and take the lion’s share of it.
Early in his career, David worked at Parker Electronics developing electronic controls for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. You may know Parker Electronics as the company that invented the electronic thermostat.
Parker Electronics was sold to United Technologies Carrier Corporation. But after the sale, former Parker Electronics CEO, Jeff Parker, was reviewing childhood movies and found that his dad was not in them because he was running the camera. That became an idea. Jeff reassembled the Parker team and founded ParkerVision to develop a robotic camera that could automatically record without a person behind the camera. It was development of that robotic camera, now used in TV newsrooms around the world, that led to David’s revolutionary invention of RF signal processing that made ParkerVision a leader in RF technologies, and changed the wireless industry forever.
Big Corporations Commoditize Products
Big corporations commoditize products to maximize profits by reducing costs, increasing sales, and eliminating risks. To accomplish that, they innovate primarily in their supply, manufacturing, sales, and distribution models. Because their business model is focused on operational efficiency, they are not very good at making big changes to existing products or starting up new product lines. This comes with risk and big corporations are by nature risk adverse.
The wireless industry had settled on complicated decades old technology called a SuperHeterodyne Transceiver (called a SuperHet) SuperHets convert analog baseband signals (think radio signals) to digital RF signals (those that can be consumed by electronics) using an elaborate array of parts (oscillators, mixers, filters, amplifiers, etc.). There were too many parts to efficiently put it all on a single chip, which made wireless transceivers physically large and hungry for battery power. Even so, academics and industry experts all agreed that the only way to produce a high-quality digital RF signal was via a SuperHet.
But David did not know that a SuperHet was the only way to do it. All he knew was that ParkerVision’s robotic camera (called CameraMan) needed a small inexpensive wireless device that the robotic camera could follow, and SuperHets were too big, too expensive, and consumed too much power. He needed a better solution.
Inventions are Cumulative
There are no inventions that do not in one way or another build on things already invented. For example, Edison’s lightbulb was an improved filament that made it last long enough to be commercially viable, but all other parts of a lightbulb were already invented.
To build a library of past inventions for future inventors to build upon, the patent system is a trade of a government granted exclusive right exchanged for public disclosure of an invention. This encourages inventors to disclose inventions to the public and puts them in one place.
The biggest challenge to inventing anything is to identify the next step. But that next step is not so easy to identify. It takes a certain kind of person under particular circumstances to figure out in which direction to look.
Experimentation in the Right Direction
Experimentation is obviously common among inventors. After all, Edison failed over 10,000 times experimenting with light bulb filaments before he got it right. David started tweaking a SuperHet in every way he could imagine. It took a while, but David finally learned what the industry already knew – a SuperHet can’t reasonably be simplified and made smaller. So, he abandoned the SuperHet and started looking in a different direction.
Direct Conversion was another existing technology to convert analog baseband to digital RF signals, but industry experts had dismissed it as incapable of producing a high-quality digital RF signal. As a result, it was only used in hobby applications and toys that could get by with a poor signal quality.
David started experimenting with Direct Conversion anyway. Eventually, his experimentation led to the invention of a method of Energy Transfer Sampling that when applied to Direct Conversion radically improved digital RF signal quality. The improvement put Direct Conversion RF signal quality on par with SuperHets, but with a fraction of the power consumption and a fraction of the parts, and its simplicity meant that it could be put on a silicon chip. ParkerVision named this new technology Direct to Data, or D2D for short.
Bringing the Invention to Market
David had limited experience in the wireless industry, so he reached out to one of the industry’s leading experts, Greg Rawlins in Orlando, Florida. Greg took on some of the toughest RF problems that the military and industry could not solve. He was a hands-on problem solver with deep industry knowledge. Greg was hesitant that D2D technology could replace a SuperHet. After all, if it did, it would upset decades of research. But he tested it anyway and found that it did work. Soon he joined ParkerVision.
Together, David and Greg perfected D2D technology inventing more technology around it. ParkerVision put it on a silicon chip and began chip production in the United States. D2D made CameraMan a success and soon ParkerVision sold the CameraMan product line. A few years later, ParkerVision’s technology won an Emmy award.
David and Greg continued to develop D2D technology for other markets including the cellphone market, which at the time was operating on 2G. They put it on a cellphone chip and brought it to market.
The benefits of the millions of dollars that ParkerVision invested to invent and develop D2D technology are profound. It radically extended battery life, the range of frequencies that could be used, and the distance a phone could be from a tower. Because D2D could easily be put on a chip, it reduced the physical size of cell phones enabling the plethora of other things you can now do now on your smartphone.
As a Qualcomm executive said in a 1998 email, which is available in public court documents, D2D “is virtually the holy grail of RF receiver designs.”
D2D was adopted by Qualcomm in the mid 2000s, which gave their chipset a huge advantage over their competitors, an advantage significant enough that Qualcomm was able to take the market for cellphone chips for themselves.
In 2011, ParkerVision was forced to sue Qualcomm for patent infringement. The results are dozens of Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) inter partes review (IPR) challenges and more than 10 years of litigation costing ParkerVision millions of dollars with millions more to spend and many more years to go before litigation concludes.
Outsiders Must be Protected
It is the outsiders, the innovators and creative minds who found the startups and take on huge risks, while investing enormous time and money to bring the next step to the market. Many of these technologies change industries and the world.
But the patent system protecting these outsiders is fully broken. The incentives are all backwards.
Since eBay v. MercExchange, an infringer who steals patented technology and then runs a startup out of business cannot be enjoined. Between the PTAB and the evolution of judicial interpretations of Section 101 and the “abstract idea” concept, infringers have shot after shot to invalidate the patents they stole. Inventors must play a very expensive game of whack-a-mole to get through the gauntlet.
This happened because of a multi-year disinformation campaign launched by Big Tech that has corrupted reality with “patent troll” cartoons and “bad patent” fiction. Trial judges drank the Kool-Aid and the Federal Circuit rubber stamps bad court decision without explanation under Rule 36.
Under today’s patent laws, big corporations no longer acquire companies or license technology. It has become so bad that it is now a CEO’s fiduciary duty to their shareholders to steal patented technology, wait to get sued (if that ever happens), and then litigate the inventor into oblivion.
It is a complete breakdown of the U.S patent system that once supported creative minds—people like David Sorrels, Greg Rawlins, and Jeff Parker—so they could change the world.
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