As someone who assists corporations and entrepreneurs in monetizing their patents, I am continuously on the lookout for potential technology buyers. To this end, I subscribe to a number of services that provide “wish-lists” of technology that others are seeking to acquire. The most notable of these are Innocentive.com and Yet2.com. Recently, I have seen a number of technologies on each of these websites that are possibly relevant to patents that I have obtained for clients over the last several years. While this could be a coincidence, I also think it could be a signal that more companies are dipping their toes into the Open Innovation space, as opposed to relying solely on internally developed products or technologies.
Patent attorneys seeking to improve the value they provide to clients would be well-served regularly reviewing the listings on these databases and spreading the word to their firm colleagues. Imagine the delight that clients would experience when their patent attorney brought them opportunity to make money on a technology that they no longer need, but have nonetheless spent considerable resources on over the years.
A word of advice, however. If the technology solution was readily apparent, the company listing the need would likely not have gone to the effort and expense to list it on Innocentive.com or Yet2.com. To be acceptable the solution will probably not just be “out of the box” but “out of the truck the box came in.” An example of such a solution is found in the Magic Eraser(R) story. For those who do not use Magic Erasers (or the numerous store-branded equivalents), the story is detailed in this Harvard Business Review reprint. (This product is a must have for anyone with children and/or white kitchens!) The synopsis is that Magic Erasers comprise a BASF insulating melamine that was sold in China as a cleaner. A “technology scout” saw the product in Japan and brought it to P & G for testing. P & G introduced the BASF foam directly into the US as a cleaning product, in addition to entering into an ongoing collaborative R & D venture with BASF to improve the cleaning properties of the melamine foam. The Magic Eraser brand has become a powerhouse for P &G and has extended to products beyond the BASF melamine foam. BASF has also benefited substantially from this endeavor in increased sales of its melamine foam, as well as in developing a strong collaborative supplier relationship with P & G.
The point of relating this story is that although BASF sold its insulating foam product into Japan for cleaning purposes, its business teams did not recognize that these same properties would be game-changing in the US market. Similarly, although P & G has one of the best cleaning R &D operations in the world, its scientific and business teams were unable to identify the BASF foam as a potential fit for its product offerings. It took someone who was charged with scouting technology–that is, working outside of the usual internal corporate R & D silos–to make the connection between the BASF foam and the huge US cleaning market.
I think that patent attorneys can serve as a type of technology scout for their clients. In preparing and drafting patent applications and in conducting opinion work for their clients, patent attorneys develop a comprehensive understanding of the properties and functionalities of their clients’ products and technologies. A patent attorney who reads the technology wish-lists posted on Innocentive.com and Yet2.com may be better able to make the connection between the desired properties of a technology and his clients’ patented technology that could solve that technology needs. As illustrated by the Magic Eraser story, a client who works in the polymeric insulation space may not be “wired” to recognize opportunities in the household cleaning space, nor will a cleaning expert likely be familiar with the auxiliary properties of an insulating foam. A patent attorney can serve as the bridge to connect such disparate disciplines because they talk to clients across varied technology and business silos everyday.
Of course, most clients will not wish to pay their attorney’s hourly rate to serve as a technology scout. Such a service certainly would operate as a value-add for most clients. Nonetheless, as clients demand more from their patent attorneys and patent practice becomes increasingly commoditized, I believe that those attorneys who show their clients that they seek to create actual value for their clients will generate more client loyalty and will face fewer push-back on cost.