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A New R&D Paradigm: Crafting Strategy by Designing Patents

Undoubtedly today, patents represent a major criterion in making investment decisions and in firms’ competitive advantage. Yet, the way we deal with designing patentable inventions does not reflect their strategic potential. Patents are strategic assets in theory but become secondary activities in practice. What if they were not an outcome but an input to craft your company’s’ future?

The face of innovation has evolved significantly over the last decades, bringing in a new era of open innovation and complex knowledge trading. The role of IP has changed “from being a technical topic within small, specialized communities to playing a key role in firm strategies” (WIPO 2013).

Every year, the number of patent applications filed by companies is increasing. Solely in France, the number of patents filed in 2014 increased by 4%. The IP-based market boasts around 10 million patents today and IP based market transactions generate 12 million dollars per year. These numbers clearly indicate that IP is, more than ever, an important asset for companies.

Indeed, large established companies often set clear quantitative goals for their teams in terms of patent applications filed per year. Likewise, in the start-up world, patent holders have higher chances of raising money during the long VC process. As a matter of fact, a France Brevet study demonstrates that ventures with patents before their respective VC campaigns increased their longterm chances of succeeding by 30%.

Along with providing legal security, patent existence generally shows third parties that a company has made an inventive step and has acquired certain expertise. For instance, Procter&Gamble Connect+Develop partners will search for ideas externally and incorporate these ideas into P&G’s product portfolio. The transfer process for both parties appeared to be much easier when the technology was protected by patents.

Undoubtedly patents represent a major criterion in making investment decisions and in firms’ competitive advantage today. To ensure this, companies should properly manage their IP development processes and leverage their inventions. Yet, the way we deal with designing patentable inventions does not reflect their strategic potential.

Blind spots

Patent applications are at stake when technology is under development. They are often seen as a support activity and appear as a logical outcome of R&D processes. In this case, patents are filed once a technology is developed or proof of concept is obtained. To determine the scope of the invention, it is necessary to evaluate the overall product design and to decide what is patentable.

Eppinger and Ulrich depict the process of preparing an innovation disclosure as formulating a strategy and then deciding on the timing of the filing, the type of application, and its scope. In practice, it means that you expect your best experts and engineers to propose patents during their R&D work and you organize financial incentives to foster inventions’ quantity and quality. You then evaluate an invention regarding its patentability internally in case a company disposes an internal IP prescreening process, or send to an external company that assists businesses and project leaders in protecting, developing, defending and strengthening their innovations. But at this stage, the invention is already designed.

Following this strategy, you do not necessarily ensure that there is a potential for new technology commercialization (so-called ‘free zone’), or that future inventions don’t infringe upon existing patents. At this stage, you do not necessarily verify whether the future IP proposals cover the core value of the invention and secure strategic market place.

This situation might result in exactly a problem: someone else has patented this before. Furthermore, we all constantly repeat that it is not the idea itself that counts, but the way to exploit, define and build our strategy based on this invention.

Prior IP infringement checks and strategy crafting can be conducted before and during the design and exploration process. There is a need to pay more attention to the interplay between the way we design inventions and the patenting process itself.

Strategic patent design

In fact, the IP process can be done the other way around. IP infringement checks and IP strategy crafting should be conducted even before any R&D projects are launched. Overall, the real challenge is not necessarily to increase the number of patents in the overall portfolio but to ensure the patentability of ideas and coherence of your future patent portfolio.

Then, why invest in R&D projects without considering their corresponding IP potential right at the beginning? Can patentability appear earlier in the development process? What if patents are not an outcome but an input to craft your company’s’ future?

The existing literature mostly focuses on intellectual assets per se, on the capacity to appropriate them and ensure their competitive advantage.

Still, studies exist that demonstrate how companies could proactively generate their intellectual assets to protect and strengthen business opportunities by focusing on the discovery phases. The discovery phases require design capacities and design-driven principles should be taken into account in order to better manage them. There are some methods that consider IP design- TRIZ, design by-analogy, genetic algorithms- though it is not yet evident how these methods perform and the expected results are hard to characterize.

Recent research led by Mines ParisTech Chair of Design Theory and Methods for Innovation proposed a theoretical framework of patent design that demonstrates how the process of inventing can be managed and characterizes the performance of methods for patent design. It shows that one critical issue is actually to characterize how to design an invention with a true “inventive step” (following the legal criteria of patentability). The paper presents a new method for patent design – C-K Invent. This method relies on C-K design theory to support the process of rigorously designing a “high quality” patent portfolio on a given innovation field. Moreover the paper reports on a series of experiments that were made to test the method. The results, summarized below, are astonishing.

C-K invent was tested within one of the leading European semiconductor manufacturers. A study of IP management practices in this company began in 2010. The semiconductor industry was chosen since it is highly researched and highly innovation-driven. Similar to the process described earlier, patents normally result from research activity. Each idea, once elaborated, is presented to the special patent committee, which evaluates the ideas, helps to enrich them, and decide whether the patent application process can be pursued. The panel of committee members includes various experts, IP engineers, and external IP examiners.

Given the pressure for innovation within the semiconductor industry and the innovation space, the company was interested in exploring the patentability of their potential discoveries at the beginning of their R&D explorations and aimed to design for patentability. Overall, four empirical cases were examined in various technological areas.

These four explorations were launched with the aim to design strategic patent portfolios with a high number of valuable inventions. Each experiment was conducted during 3–6 month periods with teams in charge of developing relevant technological blocks. Teams were comprised of engineers, researchers, doctoral students who participated in ideas generation, IP experts and those responsible for R&D portfolio, and business unit representatives. Coordinators and facilitators, experts in design-driven methods, were in charge of the first step – invention discovery.

The issued propositions were later discussed and presented to those in charge of the IP deposition and valorization. All four cases have resulted in a number of inventions and patent proposals filled.

The results indicate that the patent proposal quality depends on the capacity to extend the existing knowledge base. The latter is not limited to the knowledge combinations but requires expanding the knowledge base of the person skilled in the art as well as ensuring sufficient inventive steps and novelty.

What appeared interesting during this exploration was the high rate of acceptance of these inventions by the patent committee internally and by patent examiners later. The inventions generated from this process appear to be of high quality and originality. An explanation for this partially comes from the ability to control the reasoning that patent examiners use to qualify inventions novelty and inventive step.

By understanding the reasoning of such a ‘person skilled in the art,’ participants increased their basic level of expertise in the field and thus, were capable of designing inventions that were hard to challenge for a lack of novelty or originality by patent examiners.

This work also helps us understand that patentability is an important element to be integrated into a company’s strategic thinking and can help craft the company’s strategy by shaping patentable ideas and transforming them into products. Different users (e.g., R&D experts, professionals that orientate strategic R&D development, experts who shape a company’s future research direction and make decisions on IP portfolios) could benefit from using the design principles for patentability.

Decision makers should be aware of these strategic issues. And employees too should be educated on the role of IP in the overall strategic management process of the company.

Article written by Olga Kokshagina and published before by Paris Innovation Review on March, 28 2017.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash.