If you're an industrial products company with a new, engineered product, have you patented enough of the core technology embodied in your product to secure your freedom to operate? If you're an appliance producer with a successful new breakthrough, have you claimed every sub-assembly or component? What will keep your competition from copying you? Does your intellectual property include every aspect necessary to commercialize your product and maintain dominant market share? Failure to broadly protect your invention is an invitation to the competition to take control. And when that competition moves in, you may not just miss out on new opportunities; you may face the potential loss of your entire market.
A robust intellectual property strategy allows you to minimize your risk while creating and sustaining competitive differentiation, thereby increasing both "top-line" and "bottom-line" growth. It allows you to establish a beachhead in technology domains that are critical to the long-term success of your organization. It may also open up new markets for your company by creating innovative business or technology solutions or provide lucrative sources of "extra" revenue from licensing your technology to other industries.
This strategy, which our company calls Engineering to Own the SpaceSM, involves assessing your intellectual property at the earliest stage of the game - even before you've invented it. Each market has particular demands, and an inventor or new product team may not know all of the important market parameters. Employing a structured business decision coupled with technical engineering can, therefore, maximize the value of intellectual property. Methodologies such as Engineering to Own the SpaceSM help you to decide which technologies are worth investing in, how to maximize the value of the investments you make, and how to protect those investments for the long haul.
The first step is assessing your current technology portfolio. Do you have intellectual property worth patenting? If you do have patents, are there any gaps in your patent coverage? Can you develop technical approaches for possible infringement detection? You will also need to envision practical commercial consequences of hypothetical embodiments of technologies just beyond the limits of claims. If your product could have limitations, you will need to decide if other business actions are warranted, such as licensing, soliciting legal opinions, or starting new technical development programs to reduce commercialization risks.
Once you've completed a full assessment of your patent portfolio, you will need to compare your technology to other functional equivalents, regardless of their origin or source. To do this, you should perform a public domain functional search that would include researching relevant literature, patents, and professional/academic society transactions to identify competitive advances in technically or functionally related domains. This fact-finding should also involve analyzing those players who are patenting and/or publishing in these areas of expertise and making sure your company is well connected in all relevant fields.
While the above exercises can be performed in house, the next step, a "design-around" exercise, requires a multidisciplinary team of experts with fresh, relevant technical and industry expertise, as well as functional expertise in the areas of intellectual property strategy and technology assessment. The purpose of this "design around" is to develop novel technical paths that are unconstrained by and differ from your technology, but that achieve the same functional attributes as your product. Novel concepts that prove of interest and value can then be further engineered to strengthen your space in the marketplace, therefore, improving your firm's competitive position.
In the past, trade secrets, patents, and other forms of intellectual property typically have not been as important to the appliance industry as to companies in other fields - notably chemicals and pharmaceuticals. However, the appliance industry is counting on innovation as the solution to brand apathy, shrinking margins, and ever more serious foreign competition. Also, the product focus is clearly shifting to the high end, which is more like the fashion industry than the commodity market. In this context, an aggressive intellectual property and patent strategy could be central to getting ahead and keeping the lead. Tools such as these - and the shift in corporate mindset they require - could prove to be the key differentiator between industry leaders and also-rans in the months and years ahead.
is director of Appliance Research at TIAX LLC (www.tiax.biz). He
can be reached by phone at 617/498-6058, by fax at 617/498-7206,
or e-mail at email@example.com.
From the Top
appears bimonthly in