Sunday, June 28, 2009

Patent Thriller

The universe is much smaller than you think.

Frequently, and without fanfare, worlds collide on a daily basis that one would think could never come into each others' orbits.

No, I'm not talking about planets (although, that happens a lot more than we'll ever see). I'm speaking metaphorically, in this case, about the worlds of an aerospace giant, an entertainer, and the United States Patent Office. When these worlds collide, the deep impact isn't necessarily visible or appreciated for years (or things) to come.

Last week, the world lost three icons from the entertainment world. Ed McMahon was not only Johnny Carson's sidekick, he was a decorated war veteran, retiring with six medals at the rank of Colonel. Farrah Fawcett was not only the girl-next-door who made it big, but she put a very public lens on her battle with terminal cancer. On the same day that Farrah Fawcett died, the world also lost Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson was many things including, most certainly, a pop-culture icon. However, few people know that he was an inventor and a patent holder.

Under the laws of many countries, patents provide temporary monopoly protection on intellectual property for the owner to practice or license. Patents awarded for technology or design innovation associated with entertainment are not as rare as they might seem. In recent years, there have been shifts in the entertainment industry that have created controversy in the patent world. Michael Jackson's patent is relatively simple (and will ironically outlive him, as it currently won't expire until June of 2012).

U.S. Patent #5,255,452 describes a "Method and Means for Creating (an) Anti-Gravity Illusion". Specifically, it describes a shoe that utilizes a heel slot that can engage a special hitch (assuming you're standing on a platform equipped with one). When the hitch engages the heel slot of the shoe, a wearer of appropriate body geometry and strength can lean well past their center of gravity, without fear of falling or having an impulsive need for rhinoplasty. If you're wondering where you might have seen this shoe in practice, look no further than Michael's "Smooth Criminal" music video.

As part of the patenting process, it is required in most countries for the applicant to provide examples of what is called, "prior art". Put simply, patent applicants are asked to show why previous attempts to solve a problem or fill a need have not been as innovative as their proposed technologies or methods seek to protect. Issued patents often become essential prior art documents, as they can be used both to make, or break a case for patentability of future inventions that may have already been invented.

A patent that references or "cites" previously issued patents as part of its prior art justification can give us insights into the influence a technology has, often across industries. A subtle niche of patent research is called "citation mapping". In one example, one can map an older patent's "future" citations from its date of issuance to see what other patents it eventually would support.

Michael's patent has two forward citations. A recent one is to a shoe-related technology. The other, however, is extremely intriguing and unexpected. Understand, that prior art references are intentional. It equates, at some level, to a collaboration or partnership, albeit usually in one-direction. Who else, besides a shoe-maker you ask, would have need of Jackson's creation?

Yep. Northrop Grumman was the first thing that came to my mind, too.

U.S. Patent #5,498,161, describes an "Anti-G Suit Simulator" and references the sequined boot of innovation from three years earlier. The suit is a simulation system which simulates "realistic acceleration conditions which are normally encountered during strenuous maneuvers" as applied in this case to jet fighter operations. Jackson's patent is cited among eighteen patents which "address themselves to alleviating the problems due to G-forces".

Think about it. A critical piece of aerospace technology used in the defense of nations owes its innovation practice, in part, to the king of pop.

Now why am I suddenly thinking of Baltimore?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Revisiting the Best Advice of my Career

I knew I'd wind up here again someday.

No, not there, but close. Palo Alto. Well, Palo Alto via Chicago. It needs the Chicago flavor.

Alright, I can already hear some of you squirming in your seats, hoping against hope that I resolve this thread in a safe for work context.

Imagine a large, windowed office overlooking Chicago, near the Mercantile Exchange, in the spring of 1999. Imagine this picture (about 2' by 3' in size) elegantly framed and displayed prominently in the same office.

The office, belonged to Ahmed, a technology company's Vice President of Professional Services, and at the time, my manager. The framed picture in his office, served (in his words) as "a reminder not to take yourself or your surroundings too seriously, lest you become blind and unaware of your more immediate circumstance".

To listen to Ahmed, you'd hear a typical mid-westerner, and an atypical genius in business development, value creation, and mentoring. To see Ahmed, you'd see a man who clearly is as he will tell you, a person whose Egyptian ancestry can be traced back to the land of Pharaohs.

Ahmed was my mentor for all of 1999. During the spring, we were at our company's headquarters in Mountain View, CA. We had dinner one evening at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Il Fornaio, in Palo Alto. Ahmed introduced me to carpaccio, and as the evening progressed, Ahmed shared with me a piece of career advice that had been passed down from generation to generation in his family.

There is an old Egyptian proverb, that if you remember, and practice faithfully, will serve you well:

In business, your loyalty, is to the opportunity.

I've never forgotten that proverb, and it has been the one piece of advice more than any other that I have tenaciously practiced throughout my career(s) - I'm currently on my third. It has brought me success again and again.

Last night, I found myself back in Palo Alto, at Il Fornaio, seated at the exact same table where Ahmed shared his wisdom with me a decade before. His advice could not be more valuable today, compared to any other time I could possibly imagine.

The carpaccio tasted even better than I remembered.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Channel Searching

Yesterday marked the end of an era, as the last day of analog television broadcasts in the United States came to a close. After 12:30pm, the VHF and UHF airwaves that carried the early pops and clicks from Sarnoff’s labs at RCA, JFK’s fateful ride through Dallas and Neal Armstrong’s ghostly image from another world (as well as decades of mind-numbing entertainment) once again fell silent, to the relief of tens of Radio Astronomers. Indeed, somewhere out in the cosmos, alien civilizations might observe in their distant futures, a momentary 80-year stream of our analog TV transmissions. We’ll appear for a brief time as a non-Planckian energy source with an exceptionally high energy density in the VHF/UHF bands. It’s certainly something they will have not likely seen before, and we may never see again.

The transition to digital television hasn’t been easy. It is estimated that there are still 2 or 3 million households in the United States (most in remote locations) that have not converted to the new digital standard. The delay has been in part is due to understandable resistance to changes that are being forced upon individuals, at their own expense.

Sometimes, change is inevitable. We may have perfectly valid reasons for objecting to change that is thrust upon us, especially when such change causes us harm or sacrifice. Unfortunately, there are times when all we gain by taking the moral high ground against change is to be the first to be struck down by lightening.

I’m seeing a lot of businesses pitch tents on Mt. Moral these days.

The great recession in which the global economy finds itself, is something for which few business planned. Certainly there was little or no consideration given of its inevitability or impacts back in 2006, even though the signs of the terrible economic storm on the horizon were painfully obvious. My own customers (and in my experience the vast majority of businesses) have been focused squarely on the moment. As the recession has taken hold, its manifestation has changed from the “crazy talk” of a few to becoming the number one threat impacting every sector of the economy. Today, companies are examining every asset they have under a microscope, and no longer think of a recession as remote possibility. It has hit, and hit hard.

Currently, I’m seeing expected and predictable actions (and reactions) of corporate managers who feel as if they were caught flat-footed by the recession. Across many industries, the same stories are being played out: Redundancies are being hastily eliminated. Operations are being streamlined and/or reduced in any way that doesn’t involve new financial investment. Product innovation is being drastically re-examined and often curtailed. The latter story is of particular interest to me, for obvious reasons of course, but also because I’m seeing two product innovation camps form as I travel around the country.

The first camp is in denial, and is fighting for as much space on the summit of Mt. Moral as possible, even to the extent of pushing others down the hill. Companies in this camp proclaim “no one could have seen this coming” and are bemoaning the unfairness of the recession that has decimated their revenues. Costs have been cut, and product innovation is on hold. For these companies, their strategy, expressed with nervous pride under the flag of hope, is that the problem will just go away if ignored long enough, and the markets (with their past customers) will return to their pre-recession buying habits as if nothing happened. Once revenues return to the levels of yesteryear, resources for product innovation will be freed up, and product pipelines will be filled once more.

Important safety tip: Hope is a four-letter word.

The other camp is far more interesting. Companies in this camp are also facing significant revenue declines in their existing markets, but instead of reacting and retracting, they’re planning and preparing to move. This spring I’ve been helping companies who are seeing their billions-per-year revenues shrink by as much as thirty-five percent in less than twelve months. In this camp, no one is crying foul. Instead what they’re doing is looking for creative ways to strengthen and diversify their product portfolios. In a recessionary period, new monies for R&D are still very difficult to come by. A viable alternative to traditional product innovation is to examine benefits that existing products and technologies bring to current markets. By researching the question, “Who else needs the benefits of my product or technology?”, it is possible to discover new applications and channels for existing products that may not have been previously considered. Such channels can often represent entirely new product lifecycles for otherwise might have been a maturing product in a previously saturated market. It is a proactive strategy which companies in this camp are beginning to pursue aggressively. More often than not, the results are placing these companies in a far more competitive position for that day when the recession does finally end.

Unlike the crowded refugee camps on the high ground, this growing camp is making claims to large tracts of cheap, abandoned beachfront property for the next economic cycle. Ironically, the crowd on the hill will have poor reception in these new channels.

That gives me an idea. Maybe I can sell them my old rabbit ears?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Happy Bankruptcy Wishes from The Devil and Norma Jean

June 1st has once again made its way onto my desk calendar.

Unlike dates of significance that are associated with a holiday or moment of societal reflection, a birthday is more personal. This year's transit, for me, has proven to be a day of unique confluences that I can honestly say, as a younger man, I would not have expected.

As of this hour, twenty-two people have come together in one place from different parts of my past to wish me well today. I've heard from high-school acquaintances from the early 1980's, past and current professional colleagues, clients, service providers, friends and relatives. All of them have written on my Facebook wall today, in a sort of virtual birthday party that started on the 29th and will probably linger into mid-week. I've long-since stopped being awe-struck by internet technologies - there hasn't really been a disruptive innovation in this space for years. However, the disruptive application of internet technologies continues to weave social tapestries that had no counterparts just 5 years ago, let alone twenty or more.

Every day on the calendar contains footnotes to famous events, births and deaths. Certainly the news of today will add another footnote that will be of far greater impact than I could expect to have. At 8:00am this morning, General Motors, which at one point employed over 500,000 skilled workers and was the manufacturing engine of the United States, became a ward of the state and filed for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, this was an event that was foreseeable, especially in the last few months. Yet in that time, the American taxpayer has been subjected to a fleecing of epic proportions to support GM and its denial of the inevitable. The price tag for such hubris, funded predominantly for political expedience, has already put taxpayers on the hook for $100 billion dollars and is likely to pass $150 billion as the true depth of the liabilities are uncovered.

Do you know what $150 billion could have bought today? The Apollo program, which ran from 1961 to 1972 and put humanity on the moon (creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and spurring technology and manufacturing innovation on a scale we haven't seen since from any other single event) cost $25.4 billion in 1969 dollars. In 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars, that comes out to just under $148 billion. President Obama says we may ask ourselves, "Where's my Moon?". Apparently, it's been hacked to bits and locked in the trunks of our fathers' Oldsmobiles, which the mob has already collected and placed into outsourced car crushers.

Thanks, Barry. Keep the Change.

Maybe you could spend it on a birthday party of your own, as a predecessor of yours once did.

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1st.

Still, among the well-wishes and gifts that did not come with a certificate of perpetual wealth transfer from the IRS, was an extremely practical birthday reflection / greeting from Satan (via my goddaughter). It was a short, to the point, pull-no-punches message studded with the realities of what will befall people on any given birthday.

This guy's good. If only we had such clarity and sobering honesty in our country's fiscal and monetary policies (to say nothing of the budget). He clearly seems to have the capacity to show us exactly the road we're on and the Inferno to which it leads.

Dante was born on June 1st. I wonder if Virgil ever threw him a party?