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Strengthen Your Intellectual Assets (Part 2): Structured Innovation

In my last installment, I talked about IP audits as a way to strengthen your portfolio. Once those avenues have been exhausted, the next step is to undergo a phase of structured innovation. 

Structured innovation involves a level of diligence into the state of play in a specific technical area. Basically, it cross-references the capabilities and proclivities of your client with where business trends and technological trends are going.

That can be done in a number of ways, including the ascertainment of technical trends in the chosen technical or business domain based on technical standards literature published by standard development organizations. You can also get a feel for trends in academic articles and by keeping up with developments in new patent applications. (Yes, there is a lag of some 18 months for publishing patent applications in the United States.)

The next step is to cross-reference your research with your own internal capabilities as a company. There are people and vendors for hire who can buttress your internal capabilities and get you on track for the next step: performing a white space analysis

The primary purpose of the white space analysis is as an idea-generation tool. It looks at several vectors of developments and interests and determines where they overlap using a two or three-dimensional graphical representation. The more overlap there is, the darker the graph appears. Companies looking to increase their IP portfolio will want to look at the white or light grey portions of the graph — and investigate them further.

When pondering the various “white spaces” you may wonder, “Why are the spaces white?” 

It could be because technology, taste, or other factors have not yet reached the point where it makes sense to (continue to) innovate in certain of the domains covered in the white spaces, but soon it may make sense. Alternatively, some of the white spaces might

be white because:

  • attempts were already made in that area and failed technologically; 
  • the business model didn’t make any sense; or
  • external reasons stopped the development.

There are four or five key teams or individuals required for this process: the analytics team, the innovation team, the facilitation team, the prosecution team, and the development team. The last two teams are optional depending on the purpose of the structured innovation exercise (more product/services, more patents, or both). While there can be overlap between the membership of each of the teams, it is not wise to have too much overlap as that will very likely limit the chance of success.

It is the task of the analytics team performing this review to determine which of the explanations are (likely) correct for which white space. In order to conduct this stage of the analysis, it is important to consider what questions were being asked and what solutions were being attempted by those in the borders around a particular white space. Answering these questions will allow the team to better understand if prior attempts were asking the wrong questions, addressing the wrong problems, premature, unprepared to handle the likely answer or solution, and/or doomed to fail.

A happy side effect of this stage of the analysis is that through this process your analytics team has developed a collection of problems and questions as well as failed answers and solutions. Now, you and/or your analytics team can start organizing the questions and problems relevant to these domains in a very structured way from there. Ideally, you or your team will create a document or database that catalogs the various relevant problems and questions; failed answers and solutions; and preliminary observations regarding the reasons for that failure. 

Armed with your research, you and your analytics team should be ready to commence the innovation stage and finalize your selection of an innovation team. Typically you will start to fill up spots on the innovation team with selected innovators from within your organization. You may also engage in professional innovators. Next, your facilitator team should be assembled and (virtually or otherwise) the innovation team and facilitator teams should be introduced and encouraged to develop at least the minimum level of trust necessary (and hopefully much more than that) to allow for the free flow of ideas — whether good, bad or otherwise. 

It is worth noting that unless your organization has a fairly robust pool of in-house innovators familiar with the relevant technical domains, it would be wise to consider bringing external innovation experts on board to join the innovation team. Be highly mindful, however, that any external innovators are properly vetted and contracted, and you are comfortable with the terms governing the innovation they help generate. (We assume, but it should be confirmed, that your IP and legal team has already analyzed the terms under which internally generated innovation is governed.) 

In all events, it is wise to have a good selection of innovators at your disposal so you can, in turn, have a wide range of innovation “tool boxes” available. Most professionally innovative people will develop, over time certain techniques, procedures, and perspectives on how to solve technical problems and well as their own stock of fixes or solutions to those problems. Adding a team with a wide range of skill sets and tool boxes into the program will increase the likelihood of success in finding quality solutions to the relevant problems — not only because your innovation team will have more solutions in their tool boxes, but also because a trained facilitator team will be able to harness the creative tension that will arise as each, individual innovator attempts to help the innovation team arrive at solutions using their unique tool box to solve the problems presented — solutions that individual innovators would likely miss.

The facilitator team should develop a systematic process by which they will run through the results of the analytics team; probing the innovation team (which may be split up in various grouping to expedite the process) for their solutions to the problems in the relevant domain and recording the results. 

After a number of sessions with the innovation team, the facilitator team should review the interim results with the analytics teams to determine whether and how it might make sense to course-correct the innovation team in light of the analytics. 

After a few iterations, the innovation team should be ready to party with the patenting and development team to commence the process of translating the developed solutions into protectable intellectual property and/or develop them into prototypes. 

This is a sophisticated process. For it to work well you will need people who have done it before. Hiring a point person to manage the entire project is key. When it works, structured innovation will significantly reduce lead time to productizable innovation by avoiding blue-sky thinking. Instead, you are focusing on where people and companies are already headed, and how you can be a few steps ahead of the crowd. In a well-structured program that has the necessary bit of luck — like all of these things do — you can save a significant amount of time and effort and come up with some really interesting ideas, products, and IP.

There is one caveat: This all takes time. Rare is a situation where an outlay of money will yield a significant return on your investment in less than a year or two. Sometimes it’s a little longer, but the goal is that your return will be realized in a much shorter time than the typical timeframe for research.

David L. Cohen

David L. Cohen, P.C. – Kidon IP
123 West 93rd Street
New York, NY 10025
(914) 357-5196