Monday 15 June 2015

IPBC Global 2015: Conference report II

The second full session of this year's IPBC Global 2015 Intellectual Property Business Conference addressed "Inventor insights" -- an innovation in itself, since the IPBC has not previously organised a session on this topic. Its participants, moderated by David Kline (Principal, David Kline Associates) were European Inventor Award-winning inventors: Charles Hull, (Founder and chief technology officer, 3d Systems Corp), Carles Puente  (Co-founder and chief scientist, Fractus SA), Jean-Christophe Giron (Vice President, R&D and product development, SAGE Electrochromics Inc) and Laura van't Veer (Co-founder and chief research officer, Agendia).

This session was disappointingly not as well attended as the first, even though it raised many interesting issues as viewed from the "other side".  The truth of the matter is this: just as many people enjoy eating a tasty lamb chop but take no interest in raising sheep, there are plenty of people who enjoy working with patents but take no interest in inventors. However, as this session demonstrated, while no sheep are involved in the supply, preparation and cooking of lamb chops, inventors may continue to be involved in the development, promotion and commercial exploitation of their inventions -- and their activities, being entrepreneurial, are directly relevant to much of the professional work that people who missed this session were busy outside the Ralston Room networking with each other about.

Opening the session, David Kline observed that people in the street now associate the word "patent" with "litigation" rather than "inventor", and that with our preoccupation with the business and legal end of innovation we are losing sight of the importance of inventors and their inventions. David then introduced Jean-Christophe Giron, who has invented electronically controlled tinted glass (made by Saint-Gobain), which has important energy-saving applications. Jean-Cristophe said that young people starting out in companies should learn how to bring their inventions to the company patent attorney so that its patentability can be assessed and the invention protected; his company now has programmes for training not only young researchers but patent attorneys too.

Chuck Hall with his Mini-Me
Charles Hall spoke next: the award-winning inventor of 3D printing, he took the audience back to the 1980s, when he had already spent nearly two decades in innovative research as an industrial chemist. After moving to a small company and taking some training in entrepreneurship, Charles cultivated an interest in 3D printing which he was allowed to pursue in his own time. Much of his work related to plastic moulding and tooling, which slow down the production cycle, ultra violet light scanning and the deposit of layer upon layer in a printing process. The first version of a working machine was made in 1983 and was ready to patent in 1986, when Charles left the company and started up a new enterprise, raising capital, peddling his business plan and eventually obtaining business from the US automotive and aerospace businesses. Threats to his company's patents came almost immediately, and they had to be defended at great expense. Prior art suddenly emerged and lots of other companies wanted to get in on the act. What might Charles have done differently? He would have liked to have got his hands on all that prior art that was cited against him, but that would not have been possible since some it was contained in unpublished patent applications.

Carles Puente was introduced next.  His interest was stimulated by discovering the limitations of conventional antennas while still a student. This led to his filing of the first ever patent for fractal antennas [note for non-technical lawyers: a fractal antenna is an antenna that uses a fractal, self-similar design to maximize the length, or increase the perimeter (on inside sections or the outer structure), of material that can receive or transmit electromagnetic radiation within a given total surface area or volume. These are the antennas you can't see inside your cellphones].  Carles actually wrote his own first patent, which he modestly described as an exercise in "how not to do it". Anyway, he detailed his subsequent career, its high spots and its disappointments, realising that his business model was unsustainable despite the success of the invention itself.  This led to Carles developing a licensing model for his patents, and then litigating in the East District of Texas to protect them. Nine out of ten defendants settled with Fractus; the tenth lost. Fractus now has a healthy patent licensing business and an active research and development capacity.

Laura van't Veer then spoke about her own US-Dutch company, which she runs and of which she is also its Research Officer. Her invention relates to breast cancer detection and examining the likely risk of recurrence by studying the patient's genes.  When the invention was made and the patent filed in 2002, no medical diagnostic or pharmaceutical companies expressed any interest, since they didn't see how the invention could work. At that point, Laura set up her own university spin-off company, which enabled her to find partners and raise capital. There was quite a bit of uncertainty at the time of the spin-off as to who was entitled to what, so an element of staff training was needed. In 2006, FDA approval for using the invention was sought, and showing how the invention worked was another learning exercise. So far, her company has not run into litigation, though it has had unanticipated problems with regulatory authorities, health insurance companies and others.

There then followed a discussion as to whether Europe valued the label "scientist" more highly than that of "inventor", and as to whether it was therefore better for them to move to the United States, where the opposite was true -- while patents were becoming less popular in the United States than they now seem to be in Europe. Further discussions addressed the extent to which the inventor panellists were also entrepreneurs (which they were) and the extent to which they felt they had been adequately remunerated for their efforts (answer: "we're not complaining, but 'no'"!)  Said Carles, too much money from patents leaks into the legal system. Politely, none of the lawyers in the room dissented ...

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