Archive for November, 2011

Nov
23

It’s Worse Than I Thought: Update on Invisible Innovation in China and Taiwan

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In my recent post, “Invisible Innovation: The Blindness of the West to China’s Innovation Story,” I lamented the failure of the Thompson Reuters list of 100 top global innovators to include anything from China (and Taiwan). In that post, I erred in stating that Foxconn’s 700+ US patents in the 2005-2010 time period for the TR study was greater than some of the companies that made the list. The error is that I should also have added Foxconn’s patent company to the search. By searching for “Hon Hai Precision” or Foxconn, I now see that we’re dealing with a company has over 5800 patents, more than three times as many as Apple in the same time period. What this means is that I was wrong in saying that Foxconn has more patents than SOME of the companies in the list–they actually have more than MOST of the companies on the list. The invisibility problem I discussed is even worse than I thought when such a mammoth patent estate escapes notice.

So how was Hon Hai/Foxconn overlooked, when they have more international IP activity than Apple and most of the companies listed? How is that possible, when their innovations are a major part of the Apple success story, and when they are the world’s largest maker of electronics? An electronic cloak of invisibility seems to have covered Foxconn and other Chinese or Taiwanese companies, making Chinese innovation largely invisible to the West. It’s time to take the cloak off.

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Nov
20

Dehydrating Innovation in Europe: EFSA and Beverage Innovation

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One of the hottest areas for innovation globally is in improved foods and beverages that benefit human health. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are among the biggest barriers that innovators face in this field. In the United States, something as uncontroversial as the well-known relationship between citrus fruit and scurvy (that is, citrus fruit can prevent or help cure scurvy) becomes a dangerous proposition in the hands of a bureaucrat. One VP with a major global food company explained to me that selling an orange with the claim that it “may help prevent scurvy” could get you thrown in jail in the U.S. under the strict rules of the FDA, rules which make it exceedingly difficult to pursue innovation in food, no matter how strong the science is. But the innovation barriers from regulations in the U.S. may be dwarfed by those that are metastasizing in Europe, especially under the heavy hand of the EFSA (European Food Standards Authority). The fantasy land of bureaucrat anti-imagination in Europe is so other-worldly that you can become a criminal for claiming that “water may help prevent dehydration.” Incredible? Impossible? Here’s what Victoria Ward and Nick Collins report in The Telegraph, Nov. 18, 2011 (excerpt):

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration
Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.

“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.

“If ever there were an episode which demonstrates the folly of the great European project then this is it.”

NHS health guidelines state clearly that drinking water helps avoid dehydration, and that Britons should drink at least 1.2 litres per day….

German professors Dr Andreas Hahn and Dr Moritz Hagenmeyer, who advise food manufacturers on how to advertise their products, asked the European Commission if the claim could be made on labels.

They compiled what they assumed was an uncontroversial statement in order to test new laws which allow products to claim they can reduce the risk of disease, subject to EU approval.

They applied for the right to state that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration” as well as preventing a decrease in performance.

However, last February, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) refused to approve the statement.

A meeting of 21 scientists in Parma, Italy, concluded that reduced water content in the body was a symptom of dehydration and not something that drinking water could subsequently control.

Now the EFSA verdict has been turned into an EU directive which was issued on Wednesday.

Ukip MEP Paul Nuttall said the ruling made the “bendy banana law” look “positively sane”.

He said: “I had to read this four or five times before I believed it. It is a perfect example of what Brussels does best. Spend three years, with 20 separate pieces of correspondence before summoning 21 professors to Parma where they decide with great solemnity that drinking water cannot be sold as a way to combat dehydration.

“Then they make this judgment law and make it clear that if anybody dares sell water claiming that it is effective against dehydration they could get into serious legal bother.

EU regulations, which aim to uphold food standards across member states, are frequently criticised.

Rules banning bent bananas and curved cucumbers were scrapped in 2008 after causing international ridicule.

The ruling is more than merely laughable. For those on the cutting edge of advanced foods and beverages, it is an ominous sign of the innovation fatigue from government that is increasingly strangling Europe and much of the Western world. The inability to make reasonable, scientifically-supported claims about the benefits of healthy foods and beverages is one that will stifle innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe. I’d rather have to do my own homework to understand the validity of health claims than to have bureaucrats completely stifle innovation in health-promoting goods. Give me the Wild West of unrestrained innovation, with all the risks and bad claims that might follow, rather than a sterile 1984 society in Oceania which hordes of bureaucrats protect me from myself and everything new. But between those two extremes are many healthy, democratic alternatives in which sound legislation reduces the most egregious crimes while allowing innovators for the most part to move forward.

Here in China, where some of the best beverages in the world are to be found, I’m happy to say that soft-drink entrepreneurs appear to still have the freedom to declare that aqueous beverages reduce thirst and help prevent dehydration. Watch for the world’s epicenter of food and beverage innovation to increasingly shift toward China, if it’s not already firmly rooted here.

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Maybe China is just too far from the smug innovation circles of the West. Maybe language and cultural barriers make the events unfolding in China too inaccessible to Western media. Maybe decades of concern about IP theft from Chinese companies has closed the eyes of the West to present realities. Whatever the reason, the West today seems generally blind to the innovation powerhouse that China is becoming. Witness, for example, the highly publicized list from Reuters-Thompson of the top 100 global innovators, based on “patent activity.” With China having become one of the world’s true hotbeds of patent activity, not to mention economic impact with innovation in many fields, one might expect Chinese institutions to be well represented on the list. Incredibly, the list has ZERO Chinese entities on. None from Mainland China, none from Taiwan, and none from anywhere else in Asia except for a heavy dose of Japanese companies (27) and 4 from South Korea. Tiny Switzerland makes the list 3 times, and its minute neighbor, Liechtenstein, makes the list with Hilti Corporation. But zero from China and Taiwan? The list is related to “patent activity,” but its compilers wisely recognize that patent volume alone is a poor metric for innovation. Instead, they have created other metrics based on patent data:

The Thomson Reuters 2011 Top 100 Global Innovators are companies that invent on a significant scale; are working on developments which are acknowledged as innovative by patent offices across the world, and by their peers; and, whose inventions are so important that they seek global protection for them.

Sounds fair. So sure, the manufacturing and supply chain innovation that has been a big part of China’s economic rise are not expected to make a showing on this list. That kind of innovation doesn’t show up in terms of granted US and European patents. And the tendency for many Chinese companies to mostly file patents in China doesn’t help them with the methodology Thompson Reuters has, which looks for measures of international impact and international patents. But did they miss all the international activity of some Chinese companies? For example, a couple of days before this list of innovators came out, I posted this on LinkedIn and Twitter (@jefflindsay):

Two Chinese companies, ZTE and Huawei Tech., are among the top 5 international (PCT) patent applicants. Lots of IP here! http://is.gd/t2tUb4

OK, so Thompson Reuters doesn’t follow me, but these companies should have shown up strongly in their patent searches. These are innovative companies with products marketed internationally, having strong economic impact, and loads of patents. Being in the top 5 for international filings wasn’t good enough to even place in the top 100 for Thompson Reuters. Huh? OK, it turns out the ZTE’s surge in patent filings is recent and their numbers prior to 2010 were probably too low to make the cut for this study–that’s fair. But Huawei had 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010, a number in greater than some other companies on the list. For 2011, by the way, Huawei isn’t just in the top 5 so far–they are Number One, the world’s leader in international patent filings (see the Nov. 2011 article in the Vancouver Sun). Think they’ll be on the next list of leaders in patent activity Thompson Reuters publishes? Perhaps, who knows?

How about the Liechtenstein firm that’s in the Top 100, Hilti AG. Heard of them? They have good products for the construction and building maintenance industries such as hammer drills and other tools. They have 20,000 employees, including 2,500 in the US, and market products and file patents internationally. For the 2005-2010 time frame of the Thompson Reuters study, Hilti had 327 patents. Not bad. Well below Huawei’s score, but still respectable.

Now let’s consider a little company that was not on the list: Foxconn. Heard of them? They have over 1 million employees and are the world’s largest producer of electronic components, including circuit boards. They are the ones who actually make Apple’s products such as the iPhone and iPad. This Taiwanese/Chinese firm (China considers Taiwan to be part of China, and much of Foxconn’s work is in China) is arguably the real powerhouse behind the success of Apple and several other companies on the Thompson Reuters list. Foxconn builds Apple’s products, and not just as a mindless executor, but as an innovative partner.

Ah, but what about real technological innovation expressed in patents? Surely Foxconn is just about cheap labor and low cost manufacturing, right? A quick search of Foxconn patents granted in the US from 2005 to 2010 shows they have over 700 patents. Some are design patents, but the vast majority are technological. Foxconn apparently is conducting serious R&D and spending millions on patents to find new ways to make leading edge high-tech products better, safer, faster, and cooler (both in terms of heat management and the “wow” factor). I have the privilege of interacting with some Foxconn people and from what I’ve seen and heard I can say that they have a world-class IP program to support innovation, and I feel that they are way ahead of many Western companies in these areas. Foxconn innovation and Foxconn IP may be the real key to Apple’s success. Foxconn innovation is abundantly expressed in patents, not just trade secrets and know how, with an estate twice as big as Hilti’s over 2005-2010 and an economic impact on the global market far in excess of Hilti. But Foxconn doesn’t make the list. How do none of these Chinese companies break into Thompson Reuters’ Top 100? Did they miss the 2010 story, “China Poised to Become Global Innovation Leader,” based on patent activity? That must be from another source they don’t follow.

Nov. 24, 2011 Update: My search on Foxconn patents needs to be updated. Yes, Foxconn has an impressive 700+ US patents for the 2005-2010 period, more than some companies in the TR list. But my search was deficient, failing to consider that many Foxconn patents might have been filed under the real name of the company that owns Foxconn, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. So I expanded my search term to be “Hon Hai Precision” or Foxconn. Now, instead of 700 patents, we’re looking at a massive estate of 5,872 US patents (perhaps a couple dozen more when typographical errors are considered). This estate now dwarfs MOST of the companies on the list such as Brother Industries (2873, searching for Brother Ind* or Brother Kogyo), BASF (2771, searching for BASF or Bayerische Akt*) Goodyear (1152), ABB (948), Airbus (926), Avaya (<600), Arkema (205), Cheil (116), etc. Oh, and what about innovation giant Apple Compute? A search for simply "Apple" (which might include some smaller companies unrelated to Apple Computer) returns 1809 issued US patents from 2005 to 2010, less than 1/3 of the US patent activity of the invisible innovator that makes Apple what it is.

Let’s return to Huawei for a moment. There should be little doubt about the innovation prowess of Huawei, even though they tend to be far more secretive and do much less P.R. than Apple. But this telecom company is big (with over 100,000 employees, they connect 1/3 of the world’s cell phones) and highly innovative. Read, for example, BBC’s story, “Innovation in China: Huawei – the secretive tech giant.” Maybe the Thompson Reuters methodology docks them for being on the young side. Over half of their 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010 came in 2010–but they still clearly outpace Hilti and others over the 5-year span of the study. So what gives? I suspect that the youthfulness of the estate means there has been less time for others to cite Huawei patents, and that may be part of the problem since patent citations are part of the methodology. But to miss Huawei completely?

Thompson Reuters will surely argue that their methodology was developed and implemented fairly, even blindly (a fair term), but someone should have immediately seen that something was wrong if top international filers and innovators like Huawei, and Foxconn didn’t make the list. But when it comes to innovation, innovation in China tends to be largely invisible to Americans, who are stuck in the old paradigm of US being the innovation leader and China just being a copier. That kind of blindness will catch the West by surprise in the very near future when US companies find themselves facing numerous patent barriers from the Chinese companies that will own much of the most valuable IP. China is creating and will create much of the most important global innovation for the future. Innovation needs to ramp up in the West in order to not be left completely behind.

Dec. 8 Update: Chinese computer giant Lenovo, the world’s 2nd largest producers of personal computers, may also deserve to be on the list.

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