Working smarter and harder: KC picks up the pace on patents
Mar 12, 2013 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Patents have become one of the hottest properties in business -- and Kansas City is turning up the heat.
In the last few years, we've broken out of our historically sluggish pace of innovation, at least as it's measured by newly issued patents. A patent is a legal federal recognition that an invention is yours.
Silicon Valley may not hear footsteps, but patent growth around here has more than doubled the national pace since 2008, according to data generated by the Brookings Institution.
Kansas City inventors and researchers are working smarter, not just harder.
"That means you're a city generating solutions and answers to problems instead of just manufacturing the widget over and over again," said Jeff Pinkerton, senior researcher at the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City.
Some of the credit goes to Harley Ball and his team of patent experts at Sprint Nextel Corp. They secured 618 new patents last year based on the work of the company's "inventors." It was easily Sprint's best year, and most of the area patents sprang from work here.
"Since the recession, patent growth has been very strong in Kansas City," said Jonathan Rothwell, lead author of a Brookings study last month on patents in metropolitan areas. "There's a huge spike. ... A big part of that seems to be Sprint."
Kansas City boosts other potent patent producers.
Technology-heavy firms like Garmin Ltd., Cerner Corp. and Honeywell International Inc. regularly turn innovations here into patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Individuals who win patents on their own collectively trail only Sprint in the number of new patents awarded in the area each year.
And why not go after a patent Intellectual property is big money, both in the marketplace and the courtroom.
In December, for example, the bankrupt Eastman Kodak Co. sold its patents to a group of companies led by Apple Inc. and Google Inc. for more than half a billion dollars. And this came after Apple had won a $1 billion verdict against rival cellphone maker Samsung over patent disputes, though a judge has slashed the amount by 40 percent.
Kansas City's patent holders have seen their share of patent disputes, too.
What's behind the surge
Patents have been a bit of an uphill battle for Kansas City.
The local economy historically has emphasized mature industries like rails and trucks that have become less prone to innovation.
Even some of the area's longtime research leaders haven't been big patent producers.
MRIGlobal, the nonprofit research center that dates back to World War II, displays 80 of its patents on a wall. Most of MRI's work, however, is done under contract for industry and government.
"We work for other people, so there's not as many (patents) as you would expect," spokeswoman Pam Sharitz-Tesch said.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City is a research university, but not on the scale of Washington University in St. Louis.
The region just hasn't been productive patent-wise.
One measure Brookings made compared a metropolitan area's patent production to its working population. For decades, the Kansas City area's rank among metro areas had bounced around in unenviable territory, between 174 and 244.
No more. The area made the top 100 in 2011 and surged to 64 last year thanks to growth in patents.
Businesses lead Kansas City's patent production, according to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Sprint easily claims the top spot among area patent generators. The 618 patents it received last year covered work here, in Reston, Va., and at other Sprint locations. And it was three times the number of patents the company received in 2008. Sprint holds more than 2,700 patents in all.
Garmin Ltd., with more than 725 patents, regularly produces 10 to 30 patents a year in the Kansas City area, U.S. patent office data show.
Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies LLC, which has run a federal weapons plant in Kansas City since 1949, has generated more than 100 patents, recently about a handful each year.
The company, however, said it doesn't benefit financially from the patents or the commercial licensing of the technology, which supports future federal technology. Also, the technology becomes freely available to any federal agency.
Sprint's inventor culture
Sprint's increased patent activity reflects more than increased innovation. It also grew from a greater effort to capture that work in patents, said Ball, the company's vice president of intellectual property and technology services.
Many of its patents defy simple description. They tend to be highly technical and usually need more than one run at the patent office to gain official recognition as something distinct from earlier patents.
For example, Sprint says its Patent No. 8320313 involves a "method and system for carrier frequency management based on slot contention," whatever that means.
Consumers benefit from patents even if they don't realize it.
Sprint's Patent No. 8307110 means its customers' cellphones won't run down their batteries trying to get fresh readings on the Dow Jones industrial average or the Royals game when there's no update to be had. Others help Sprint manage its call centers or deal with push-to-talk phone features.
Many stem from employees' regular efforts to make Sprint's wireless network run better.
Ball leads a team of attorneys and analysts who turn ideas into patents, but he said it is important that employees understand what can lead to patents.
Sprint holds a lunch each year to recognize employees whose work leads to patent applications and to encourage attention to possible patents. A patent filing also triggers a cash "honorarium" for the employee.
"We have a culture of patenting now," said Ball, a patent lawyer who joined Sprint more than 20 years ago.
Larry Sutton has had a tough time getting a patent. He's still waiting more than four years after applying to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Sutton is a chemist in Atchison, Kan., who came up with a new antibiotic technology.
With "patent pending" to his credit, Sutton gained backing from investors and formed a corporation, Sopharmia Inc.
Even with backing, Sutton said he finds the patent process to be expensive. There is a steady stream of fees attached to a patent effort, and he found an experienced patent attorney's help to be vital.
"You start running up 10, 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars by the time you pay all the fees," Sutton said. "We're trying to advance the technology. We can't afford to put it all toward the patent process."
And he's working hard to file for two new patents by mid-March. U.S. patent law is changing, and the new rules may make it harder on patent holders.
"You want to be under the old rules," said James Brazeal, director of the technology transfer office at UMKC.
One change will award a patent to the first to file an application on an invention. The law currently uses a first-to-invent standard. Patent holders also may find it more difficult to fend off challenges during reviews after a patent is granted.
The Americans Invent Act also helps small inventors by creating a lower fee for universities and "micro-entities" that seek patents. Small filers currently pay half the standard rate. Micro filers will pay a fourth.
A smaller fee would have helped Mike Smoker, a Leawood resident who has been trying to work through the patent process more or less on his own.
Smoker studies background contamination in his day job as a chemist, looking specifically for pesticides in food.
His invention is a clear portable box to contain fumes, debris and dust thrown off by small hand-held tools such as a grinder or soldering tool.
The patent application, which he filed in December after a year of effort and the help of friends, explains why his box solves problems not addressed by inventions that received U.S. Patent Nos. 4505190 and 55450082, and how Patent No. 4505190 isn't easily portable.
"It was a lot more expensive and time-consuming and harder than I thought," Smoker said. "Getting my working prototype slapped together was easy and fun compared to doing all the editing, research and getting the graphics done."
Still, such individual efforts lead to more than 50 new patents a year in the Kansas City area, data through 2010 show.
Nationally there has been a surge in patents, in part because more things can be patented.
Rapidly evolving and new industries such as telecommunications and biotechnology feed the surge. So does the innovative practice of patenting business methods.
Computer software became patentable with a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision, said Chris Holman, an associate professor at UMKC focused on intellectual property and biotechnology. Other court decisions added to the list of what can be patented.
Since 2005, he said, courts have been pulling back on what is patentable.
Holman is closely following a lawsuit that will decide whether Monsanto can defend patents it holds on genetically modified seeds. One question at issue is whether a soybean farmer can plant second-generation seeds -- those that came from soybean plants that were grown with Monsanto's patented seeds.
Courtrooms also are where patent infringement battles have played out. Often the targets of lawsuits are companies that hold plenty of patents themselves.
Garmin officials declined to talk about company's patents, mostly because the maker of satellite-based navigation devices faces so many lawsuits claiming patent infringement. It has been through five lawsuits that it was able to get dismissed or settled, and it still faces twice as many active cases.
"All 10 of these are patent troll cases," Garmin spokesman Ted Gartner said in an email.
He added that few of the parties that are suing Garmin actually sell products, the cases don't involve technology the suing parties use or was commercially valuable to them, and the accusations against Garmin are untrue.
Sprint similarly faces patent infringement claims, including being one of 15 companies sued by Steelhead Licensing LLC, a company that bought the patents from British Telecom.
Ball, without commenting on specific suits Sprint faces, said most involve "non-practicing entities" that essentially buy patents and sue "for a living."
Sprint also has defended its own patents in court.
Its 2005 suit against Internet phone service provider Vonage landed a $69.5 million jury verdict in Sprint's favor and ultimately an $80 million payment. Sprint successfully claimed Vonage was using technology covered by patents Sprint was issued in the early 1990s.
And Sprint is suing again involving some of the same patents. This time its targets are Time Warner Cable, Comcast Cable and others.
"We would consider these patents to be extremely important and valuable," Ball said.
To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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