[EAS] The Inventor's Comeback?

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu May 6 03:16:00 EDT 2004

Subject:   The Inventor's Comeback?

Be sure to read all three items.  --PJK
(from INNOVATION, 5 May 2004)

The number of U.S. patent applications and subsequent awards has
more than  doubled over the past 15 years, reflecting Americans'
never-ending craving  to create "bigger, better" versions of just
about everything. "This is an  extraordinarily inventive age," says
Arthur Molella, director of the  Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson
Center for the Study of Invention and  Innovation. "I think we're
feeling changes such as people felt at the  beginning of the last
century, when they suddenly had the ability to travel  all about the
world." Indeed, technology is playing a major role in  invention
today, with nearly half of all patent applications in the 
electronic- or computer-related fields. And while the corporate labs
have  been prolific in cranking out inventions, a full 25% of
patents granted  each year still go to so-called independent
inventors, and that percentage  may be increasing. "For a long time,
industry didn't want anything to do  with the independent inventor
because they were too unrealistic in their  expectations," says Bob
Lougher, executive director of the United Inventors  Association.
"But now, corporate America is reaching out to the independent 
inventor." (MSNBC 22 Apr 2004)

Big companies in search of the next big blockbuster should set their
sights  a little lower, says Adrian Slywotzky of Mercer Management
Consulting. "In  most industries, truly differentiating new-product
breakthroughs are  becoming increasingly rare." With that in mind,
companies have been  shifting their R&D efforts away from in-house
labs looking for that next  "Eureka!" moment (think AT&T's Bell Labs
and Xerox PARC), and transforming  it into an "internal,
bureaucratically driven process," says NYU professor  William
Baumol. Increasingly, what constitutes innovation in large firms is 
a series of incremental improvements in daily operational processes.
 Meanwhile, those companies still looking for the "Big Bang"
innovation are  buying up small, creative startups, which currently
dominate the  introduction of new inventions and radical
innovations, or even looking to  offshore outsourcing for the next
big idea. For instance, Wipro, in India,  employs 6,500 people in
Bangalore to do R&D for Western companies --  including nine out of
the world's top ten telecom equipment manufacturers.  (The Economist
22 Apr 2004)

(from INNOVATION, 28 April 2004)

Patent attorneys say that increasingly companies are imitating their
rivals' products, while tweaking their own versions just enough to
avoid a  patent infringement suit. The strategy, called
"design-around," is gaining  popularity as companies shift more
manufacturing outside the U.S. in an  effort to lower costs.
"There's really been a spike in this sort of  activity in the last
few years," says patent attorney Jack Barufka. "We  design around
competitor patents on a regular basis," says James  O'Shaughnessy,
VP and chief intellectual property counsel at Rockwell  Automation.
"Anybody who is really paying attention to the patent system,  who
respects it, will still nevertheless try to find ways -- either 
offshore production or a design-around -- to produce an equivalent
product  that doesn't infringe." The practice is particularly common
among auto  parts and semiconductor manufacturers and other large
markets where  newcomers are seeking a way to gain a foothold.
Meanwhile, the trend is  pushing up R&D costs as companies that come
up with original ideas try to  protect their inventions by coming up
with a dozen other ways to achieve  the same result -- and patent
those, too. "A patent is basically worthless  if someone else can
design around it easily and make a high-performing  component for
less," says patent attorney Morgan Chu. (Wall Street Journal  19 Apr
http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB108233054158486127,00.html (sub req'd)

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