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Among the many barriers to innovation success, one of the most painful and dangerous is rapidly gaining momentum in the United States due to an almost perfect storm of challenges to patent value. I speak of the blight of “efficient infringers,” the many companies, often large and politically influential, who make the cruel calculation that it’s more efficient to blatantly steal intellectual property from small opponents rather than pay for the property they want to use. The victims are the usual suspects, small companies, startups, and lone inventors. I use the word “suspects” deliberately for these victims, for they are suspects in an economic and media climate that increasingly views innovators as a key problem (e.g., “trolls”) for daring to own and perhaps even assert intellectual property against the benevolent titans of Silicon Valley and others who feel they are too big and too entitled to pay for what they take.
In the ruthless calculations of the efficient infringers, they recognize that if their infringing actions are detected, many patent owners won’t have the resources to challenge them in a long, costly battle. They recognize that if they are sued, the abundant new tools they have helped Congress create to kill patents may prevail and eliminate the problem in the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), where one keep filing new attacks against the same patent over and over until the judges declare a patent to be abstract or otherwise invalid. The rules are stacked against the patent owner there, and just in case, it’s even possible for judges there to make rulings that favor companies with whom they have obvious connections, as in a former Apple employee making rulings in favor of Apple, with no apparent requirement to recuse themselves for conflict of interest.
If by some chance the patent owner prevails, the owner probably won’t be able to get a permanent injunction against the infringer due to a horrific Supreme Court ruling, Ebay, that removes one of the most important tools a patent owner should have to shut down an infringer. They will just have to pay some reasonable royalties and can avoid the real pain that deliberate infringement ought to bring. So in light of the slight risk of having to pay something to the occasional patent victor, many companies decide they can just do what they wish and treat potential patent losses as the relatively low cost of doing business. Efficient, but ruthless.
Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog.com accurately describes the dire situation in his latest post, “The Great Escape: Efficient Infringers Increasingly Seek to Abuse Antitrust Law.” Read the article and subscribe, for IPWatchdog is one of the most important voices daring to stand up against the anti-patent forces that are causing so much harm to our economy and such ongoing innovation fatigue for those who had the courage to invest in innovation. Efficient theft of the fruits of that innovation will hurt all of us in the end as innovation grows weary.
Be careful about the vehicle you’ve been driving. As sturdy, tangible, useful, and inventive as it looks to you, it may turn out to be merely an abstraction, perhaps nothing more than the mere idea of “transportation” or “going places,” making it unworthy of the thousands of patents protecting its numerous technologies — if the USPTO and America’s elite judges get their way. An abstract automobile? You don’t want to be caught dead driving one. Unfortunately, since the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) just ruled that an MRI machine is abstract and thus not patentable under the odious and vague principles of the Supreme Court’s recent Alice decision, it could be that automobiles and virtually every other machine under the sun could be next on the anti-patent chopping block. Your trusty Toyota or your faithful Ford are about to go abstract on you, courtesy of the USPTO. Look out.
In the PTAB’s elite view, as Gene Quinn explains, all the physical wizardry of the mighty MRI machine as claimed in a recent patent application for an improved MRI is just an abstract idea based on the abstraction of “classification.” It defies logic and defies the requirements of the Alice decision and the USPTO’s rules for applying Alice, but the PTAB has become a patent munching zombie that doesn’t seem bound by logic or law. They are one of the strongest forces promoting innovation fatigue. Many innovators are just giving up or going to other nations where IP rights are more meaningful.
The anti-patent forces that have taken hold of far too many influential posts in America view property rights and especially intellectual property rights as a barrier to the ideal society they envision. If only we could get rid of patents, they seem to think, drug prices would fall and Obamacare, for example, would not be such a disaster. But the bounty some intellectuals promise by weakening property rights is an illusion, for without IP rights, what is the incentive to take on the risks and costs of innovation if you cannot benefit from the occasional successes that come from your uncertain work? If your hit product can be taken and marketed by others who did not have to spend so much time and money developing it, then the inventor is often at a competitive disadvantage to everyone else. Why bother?
America’s war on patents is a war on the future of innovation. It’s a war we cannot afford to lose.
China’s housing market is in a bubble, in my opinion, for it seems to display some of the same excesses and questionable behavior that the United States had in real estate shortly before the big subprime mortgage crash in 2007. We have a flood of newly created cash flowing into the market at low interest rates for easy loans. We find unusual business models popping up to exploit the cheap credit and drive up housing prices and housing demand. And we will see rapid changes occur as the bubble pops in some way.
Easy credit from the banks of China and abundant new cash from China’s equivalent of “quantitative easing” have been used in an attempt to stimulate the markets, just as has been done with little success in the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Zimbabwe (before their cataclysmic crash with hyperinflation and economic chaos). Initially much of the new money being created was being used to drive the Chinese stock market. As that bubble popped, rich Chinese looked again to real estate as the traditional safe way to make lots of money. In popular cities, home prices have shot up. In Shenzhen, housing prices show a 57% increase over last year. That’s a ridiculous rate showing something is wrong.
Owners of apartments until recently were not too concerned about rent since they real money were making was coming from rapidly appreciating property values in cities like Shanghai. But with fear that recent rises were no longer going to be sustainable, rental prices are now getting more emphasis. This appears to be driven in part by the very large-scale actions of a giant force, the real estate company Lianjia (United Homes), according to a friend of ours who is a real estate agent. Lianjia has managed to obtained huge capital reserves that it has used to buy up many former competitors, giving them a stranglehold on the real estate market. They are also using large amounts of capital to make loans to customers who otherwise might not be able to afford the down payment of a new property. Further, they are actively working with property owners to push for significantly higher rental values. This increases their commissions and also make landlords happy.
In spite of China’s slowing economy, many renters are reporting significant jumps in rent this year. Our landlord, for example, wanted to increase our rent by 33%. Since we take good care of the place and don’t make many demands, though negotiation, she was willing to sacrifice to help us by just asking for a 24% raise in rent instead. But she has agents from Lianjia calling her and saying she could be getting 33% or even 40% more. This seems to be happening all over the city.
In looking for new, more affordable apartments, my wife found that when she went to the nearby Lianjia office and asked for places with a price similar to what we have been paying the past year, they said it wasn’t possible and that we would have to pay a lot more to get a place with the features we now have. When we went to one of the increasingly hard-to-find non-Lianjia dealers, we learned that there certainly were places in our price range that could meet our needs. While my wife and a non-Lianjia agent were looking at one apartment priced at 14,000 RMB, a Lianjia agent came to the same place with a Chinese girl who was looking to rent. She liked the place and asked how much it was. My wife heard the Lianjia agent say it was listed at 18,000, a full 4,000 RMB above the actual asking price. The girl was shocked and wondered how it could be so expensive. She turned to the agent my wife was with and asked what price he had been told. Not wanting to make another agent lose face, our agents just nodded his head and said it was 18,000. But this apparently was Lianjia’s attempt to drive up the price, deceiving a customer. Ugly.
By offering easy loans to customers who might not otherwise be able to get one, and by collaborating with landlords to drive prices up, the rental market in Shanghai has been booming at a crazy pace, the kind of pace that looks like a classic bubble. The housing bubble is already popping in Hong Kong, with a significant drop now in housing prices since the Sept. 2015 peak, said to currently be in “free fall.” That cold front may soon sweep northward to cities like Shanghai.
In bubble economies, it’s hard to tell precisely when the insanity will stop. With abundant injections of cash and other policy actions, the government could keep driving up prices for a while, but eventually (what, two more months? maybe six? a year?) economic reality has to kick in, and when it does, it can be painful and sudden. The bigger the steps taken to keep the bubble going, the worse the pain will be and the longer the correction will take.
When cheap mortgages to unqualified buyers begin to fail and threaten the banks, we could be in for a repeat of the subprime mortgage crisis the US faced a few years ago. When property owners begin to see that real estate values can drop significantly, they may look to the ultimate way of preserving capital in risky times: precious metals, particularly gold and silver. A dramatic pop of any kind in China could send shock waves throughout the world.
This is a good time to be prepared. Get out of debt. Have cash on hand to keep you going for two or three months in case there is a run on the banks (the available currency in the US is a tiny fraction of the vast amount of digital money that has been created, and if banks fail or are hacked, turning those digits into something you can spend may be a challenge that faces many delays, not to mention massive threats of hacking. Physical cash on hand may be an important part of your survival kit. Food and other supplies, and some gold and silver coins or bullion, may be a good idea.
Breaking news from the Province of Shandong in northern China: A Chinese paper company, Quanlin Paper (also called “Tralin Paper”) has successfully used its portfolio of patents and trademarks to secure a huge loan of 7.9 billion RMB (about $1.3 billion). Potentially significant story for those tracking IP and innovation in China. The story was just reported on March 3, 2014 at China Paper (the story is in Mandarin). This is quite a big deal and may be a record for China in terms of how much value IP brought in seeking a corporate loan. To emphasize the significance of this development, the normally dry China Paper publication begins with a somewhat flowery statement based on an interview with the Chairman, who expresses surprise and delight at how much money they were able to obtain with their IP. Here’s my loose translation, followed by the actual Chinese:
“I never thought that intellectual property could have such a big effect in obtaining this loan. IP was a big part of it,” according to Quanlin Paper Company’s Chairman of the Board, President Li Hongfa, speaking today to a reporter about the 7.9 billion yuan from bank lenders that began this week. He said that this money will help them rapidly expand and seize market opportunities. For an enterprise where funds have been tight, this new addition is gladly welcomed just as the mist-covered earth rejoices in the spring rains from the night before.
OK, a bit flowery, but again, this is big news for China and things get flowery when the big news is good. This development shows that IP in China can be valuable (though the portfolio includes some international patents, though it is mostly Chinese IP). It also shows that Chinese companies, even in seemingly dull industries like the paper industry, can be innovative and create valuable IP. I haven’t reviewed their IP to assess its value, but I understand they have over 100 Chinese patents in areas such as technology for using straw and other renewable or recycled materials for making paper, with alleged benefits of enhanced environmental friendliness and cost effectiveness. Shandong Province’s IP Office has also created some publicity about Quanlin’s IP estate (see the Chinese article here), though this was before the news of the massive loan secured with the help of IP. Expect more publicity from them shortly.
Further background comes from Baidu’s wiki-like entry on Quanlin Paper.
When nations develop strong IP systems, companies can use their IP to protect their innovations. This also motivates them to take the risk and spend the money need to drive further innovation, and gives investors courage to fund growth and innovation. In this case, it helped give a lending partner (a Chinese financial organization) the courage to loan a giant sum of money to help Tralin grow. Tralin has been pursuing IP not just for tax breaks it seems but also for strategic purposes, and information coming out about this story shows that they have been developing expertise in their staff to develop their IP estate. Sure looks like that has paid off for them.
This is one of many signs that China is becoming serious about IP and innovation, and not just low quality IP, but IP that can provide significant value. For IP to apparently be a crucial part of such a large loan in this challenging economic times is a remarkably positive sign for China, in my opinion.
A hat tip to Ian Feng (Yan Feng) of Goldeast Paper in Zhenjiang, China for bringing this news to my attention.
Update: On my mostly China-related blog, Shake Well Before Serving, I offer my full translation of the China Paper article, if you are interested. The translation is in the post, “A Sign of China’s Growth in Intellectual Property: Chinese Company Relies on IP to Gain Giant Loan,” where I have cross-posted the breaking news on Tralin Paper (a.k.a. Quanlin Paper).
Innovators and business leaders doing their best to achieve commercial success need to understand the set of innovation fatigue factors that they face. These include personal factors due to the bad behavior of individuals; corporate or organizational fatigue factors reflecting inadequate systems, culture, or flawed judgment; and external fatigue factors due to the burdens of legislation, taxation, and challenges in the patent system, for example. The first two categories are factors where innovators and corporate leaders are in charge. The external category is the most difficult one because the challenges come from outside our sphere of influence, where the best efforts on our part can still face seemingly insurmountable challenges beyond our control.
One of the effects of uncertainty regarding the regulatory climate that business faces is a dangerous reduction in venture capital that is often needed for start-ups to succeed. Consider this ominous news story from Yahoo! about the drop in venture capital funding recently:
Venture capitalists poured less money into U.S. startups in the third quarter and split this among more companies, signaling that investors are trying to be more economical with their funds.
According to a study set to be released Friday, startup investments declined 7 percent to $4.8 billion in the July-September period, compared with $5.2 billion invested during the same three-month period in 2009. A total of 780 startups received funding during the quarter — 9 percent more than the 716 companies that took slices of the investment pie last year.
The study, which was conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association based on data from Thomson Reuters, said that much of the decline stemmed from a drop in large investments in clean technology. Funding in clean-tech startups, which include alternative energy, recycling, conservation and power supply companies, has been mercurial lately. It fell every quarter last year compared with the previous year, but has been climbing this year — until the third quarter.
This is a genuine red flag, consistent with many red flags that we are seeing. The co-founder of Home Depot, for example, recently criticized the federal government in an open letter to President Obama in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 15, 2010), explaining that Home Depot, founded during a past recession and now providing over 300,000 jobs to Americans, could never have been successfully founded in today’s climate where government, in his opinion, seems set on vilifying and punishing business rather than helping it to succeed.
We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.
If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it’s a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase—never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.
Meantime, you seem obsessed with repealing tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires.” . . . The wealth that was created by my investments wasn’t put into a giant swimming pool as so many elected demagogues seem to imagine. Instead it benefitted our employees, their families and our community at large.
Business leaders and innovators face many new burdens and uncertainties that can crush delicate start-ups and even thriving businesses. Increasing the burdens right now, whether through more regulations, higher taxes, or other measures with unintended anti-business consequences, seems likely to only increase innovation fatigue at this critical time in our nation’s history. I urge our leaders to carefully consider how small companies and start-ups are being affected, and how venture capital will be affected, by the changes that are being proposed and by the actions they’ve already taken.
It’s time for government to listen to the voice of the innovator.
I was reviewing some information from one Venture Capital firm that described their annual efforts. Far from the laid-back lifestyle that some people imagine, this successful VC firm spent much of their year traveling to meet with over 6,000 companies. A few hundred would be selected and screened more carefully, and then a dozen or so might be selected for funding. Whew, what an exhausting funnel. But they are looking for gems in the rubble of entrepreneurial activity, most of which is bound for failure.
The experience of skilled venture capitalists points to a few key issues that all of us can apply to increase the odds of success in our entrepreneurial efforts and help us be more selective and less fatigued in filling the limited funnels of our own innovation efforts. Mike Alder, one of my favorite gurus of start-up success, now head of the Technology Transfer Office at Brigham Young University, once told me that the most important thing in his experience was the management team. Great technology with a dysfunctional or incompetent team will go nowhere. It takes a good team and especially a good leader to have a serious chance of success. That’s been our experience also at Innovationedge, where we have worked with a number of start-ups to assist them in commercialization (though most of our focus is on helping larger companies with their new product and innovation efforts).
Inc. Magazine has a valuable little piece, “6 Thoughts Inside the Mind of a Venture Capitalist” by John Warrillow. Read the whole article, but here are the six key questions that many VC people consider when they hear a pitch. Even if you never deal with the VC community, you should be using most of these questions as you evaluate your own entrepreneurial activities and plans.
1. “Why you?” (Are you uniquely qualified to play in this space? Do you have the expertise it takes to have credibility and a chance to succeed?)
2. “Should your concept really be its own product?” (Or is it just a new feature for an existing product? If it’s the latter, you should be licensing your product to the existing players in the market, not launching a new one.)
3. “How much will it cost to get someone to buy your product?” (I’m often amazed at how many start-ups haven’t carefully considered this. Details of distributing the product, for example, are often neglected. Demand for the product is almost always wildly exaggerated.)
4. “Can I protect your idea?” (If you want to sell your company or license your invention and lack means to prevent direct copying, you’ve got an uphill battle. One VC leader told me that they are simply much more interested in technology with a patent, even if the patent isn’t rock solid. Of course, sometimes know-how from proprietary research can give you a hard-to-imitate-lead without a patent. Sometimes.)
5. “How much money do I need to invest before your company will be worth more than it is today?”
6. “Can I fill the holes on your management team?” (A related question: Are you located in a place that high-powered business leaders would never move to? Can I relocate you to a more interesting area?)
The questions begin and end with consideration of the qualifications of the team and its leader. If you sink in that area, the business isn’t going to float.
Screen your projects with the VC lens, and you’ll be less likely to plunge into futile innovation fatigue.
The lifeblood of innovation is capital. Investment of capital is the primary difference between great ideas and great teams that go nowhere and those that change the world. From the airplane to the iPod, from wonder drugs to wonder software, innovation requires invested capital to bring concepts to commercial reality. Angel investors play a crucial role in the ecosystem of invention, but they may soon be shut down by Congress in their efforts to “protect” Americans from financial risk.
Risk is a dirty word for those who don’t understand business. Wouldn’t it be nice if government could just protect us from the risk of failure and ensure that we are always safe? But this kind of thinking means stagnation, captivity, and the death of innovation, for the opportunity to succeed inevitably is shadowed by the risk of failure. If success is guaranteed, why put forth the effort to create and innovate? If a venture is protected from failure, we are also protected from the kind of success that inspires innovators and their backers to undergo risk.
Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council has boldly and bravely weighed in on Congressional plans to protect us from risk, plans that would give them even more control over the things they seem to understand least while making it more difficult than ever for innovators to succeed. Tom Still challenges the financial reform legislation proposed by Senator Dodd and points out that his efforts to protect us will crush angel investing, which in turn will stop many innovators from having a shot at success. Ultimately, Dodd seeks to “protect” people from investing their own money the way they want to, and the unintended consequence will be a painful blow to innovation. Tom Still’s article is “Angels on the head of a sharp pin: Financial reform bill poses threat,” published April 21, 2010 at Inside Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Technology Council. Here is an excerpt:
The financial sector reform bill being pushed by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., takes direct aim at the wings of angel investors for reasons that defy explanation. If passed, this “Washington-knows-best” attempt to regulate some of the nation’s most productive risk-takers could destroy the entrepreneurial economy.
Angel investors are often entrepreneurs who hit a home run in their own start-up businesses and who want to reinvest in other young companies. Angel investors are generally strong business executives with an eye for innovation, and they’re not afraid to take a calculated gamble on companies that are too new to get financing from venture capitalists or too risky for banks.
They usually invest close to home and most often as individuals or within a family, but increasingly angels invest as members of angel networks or angel funds that offer some safety in numbers and more partners to screen potential deals.
In Wisconsin, angel investors have been in the vanguard of fostering the state’s early stage economy. Five years ago, there were only a handful of angel networks in Wisconsin. Today, there are nearly two-dozen networks and funds – and they’re not shy about rolling the dice on Wisconsin companies in sectors such as biotechnology, information technology, medical device, advanced manufacturing and “cleantech.” …
But if Dodd has his way, these individualistic investors will be regulated out of existence.
The Restoring American Financial Stability Act, of which Dodd is the chief sponsor, would tighten regulation of the nation’s financial system in ways large and small. It contains three provisions that would effectively kill angel investing in the United States:
- It would require start-up companies to register with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, and wait at least 120 days for SEC review, before trying to raise money. Currently, fledgling companies can raise money from accredited investors without regulatory approval. Four months is an eternity in the life of a start-up company, and most would die in the vine before they ever get a chance to grow.
- It would redefine who is an angel. Accredited investors, who are people deemed wealthy enough to invest in start-ups, would be limited to those individuals with more than $2.5 million in assets (up from $1 million today) or a personal income of $450,000 per year (up from $250,000). This will dramatically decrease the supply of angels, which the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Venture Research estimated at 259,000 in 2009. Those angels invested $17.6 billion in about 57,000 deals.
- It would subject investors and start-up companies to state-by-state rules versus a single set of SEC standards. Along with the new SEC filing requirement, that would add red tape, time and cost to the investment process.
In its frenzy to clamp down on Wall Street, Congress is threatening an investment community that fosters innovation, mentors young companies and generally cares about how the economy is faring where they live. Angels have helped to create some of today’s biggest companies – Apple, Amazon, Google and many more – usually without putting anyone’s money at risk other than their own.
Angel investing isn’t perfect; the average return on investment proves that. But it’s precisely the kind of bottom-up, largely self-regulated economic activity the nation needs as it struggles to create new companies and jobs. Only those federal lawmakers intent on a top-down, command-and-control economy would think otherwise.
We have enough innovation fatigue factors on our backs already. Clamping down on one of the major arteries that provides capital to start-ups and entrepreneurs is not going to enhance circulation in the atrophying limbs of this economy. We need to back down and let the private sector thrive on its own, taking on both risk and failure, and when we fail, let us fail instead of taking from those who succeed to prop up failures deemed “too big” to fail. The free market offers powerful solutions to some of the problems we face and powerful incentives for innovation, if we can stay out of the way.
Kudos to Tom Still for his insights into the risks Dodd’s bill poses.