Business, Government - Written by Steve Guengerich on Tuesday, October 20, 2009 9:19 - 9 Comments
GreenXchange: “wikinomics” for cleantech intellectual property
I served as a judge for the 3rd annual Clean Energy Venture Summit (CEVS) in Austin last week. If you’ve never attended one of these events, the main program is a competition among companies vying to win recognition as the best new product or service idea. To compete, each company has one or more representatives do a brief pitch on stage before the judges and, in the CEVS’s case, an audience of over 400 business people, during which they are to make the most compelling case possible for their business.
Each presenter gets the same amount of limited time (5-7 minutes) to cover key points that include: innovation, overall market opportunity, stage of development, intellectual property (IP) position, resource requirements, environmental impact, management team, and potential ROI. After their formal remarks, judges followed by audience members, have another 5 minutes or so to ask follow-up questions.
It’s always interesting to hear over 20 presentations by company principals in such a concentrated period of time. Besides being reminded how important it is to prepare and rehearse a presentation, by listening to a range of styles from very good to universally awful, you also pick up attitudes and perceptions about themes that entrepreneurs and investors consider important and how those change over time.
One of the themes I listened closely for was the approach to IP. Historically, intellectual property – especially patents – has been one of those areas considered to be critical by investors for several reasons, particularly for businesses based on “hard science” like biotech and clean energy.
First, an IP “position” is critical because investors want to know that the company has done its “homework” and has determined at some reasonable level, in advance, that it is not building its business on the legally protected work of others. Or, if it is, investors want to know that the company has a command of the IP that it must acquire or license in order to get its product(s) to market.
Second, traditionally, IP represents a competitive barrier to entry to other companies that may be trying to bring to market similar products. The thinking is that by having one or more patents on key discoveries or innovations, the competition may be slowed down or possibly completely thwarted from proceeding.
Leading to the third reason investors have traditionally viewed IP as critical, which is that IP potentially represents a “hard asset” in which the investor tangibly has an ownership interest. Worst case, should “all else fail” (which the percentages say is likely, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “venture” capital), there is the hope that the investor can monetize any patents that are secured through their investment.
Best case, the IP is so compelling and differentiating that it enables the company to bring to market a product that enjoys higher-margin profits, due to customer demand. Or, taking it a step further, competitors may want to acquire the right to use the protected IP via licensing, joint venturing, or other arrangements.
All of this is background to say that the attitudes and perceptions about IP are changing, both on the entrepreneur and investor side. While it was still an important criterion for evaluation, more than one presenter at the CEVS said, to paraphrase, “I’m really less focused on patents or other IP protection and more focused on time to market and execution, because I don’t believe that the time and money spent on the IP strategy gains you much advantage, versus the cost.”
The main reasons given for this position, were two-fold: (1) in this globally-connected market of ideas, it’s too “cheap” – both time- and money-wise – to find ways around patents (versus the costs of securing them) enabling you and/or your competitor to continue forward with your primary plans and (2) in the spirit of the global dangers of climate change, the necessity for clean technologies demands that products innovative products and services be brought to market as fast as possible.
I could spend a whole other blog post arguing the pro and con merits of this changing position by entrepreneurs about IP, but instead I want to focus on a development where businesspeople are embracing this position and doing something potentially transformative about it through an effort called the GreenXchange.
The GreenXchange is a project of Nike, Creative Commons, and Best Buy. Their vision is to create an “open innovation platform” that promotes the creation and adoption of technologies that have the potential to solve the problems of sustainability. The goal is to create a “commons” among as large a group of commercial, public sector, and non-profit stakeholders as possible, leveraging ideas and techniques such as using patent pools, research non-assertions, and technologies that support networked and community-based knowledge transfer and sharing.
These principles sound familiar to most of us, of course, because at this point they are recognized as the essential foundations of the open software/open source movement, where Creative Commons is recognized as a leader in providing intellectual property licensing, facilitating sharing and knowledge transfer. The GreenXchange is technically a project of Science Commons, which was launched with the goal of bringing the openness and sharing that have made Creative Commons licenses a success in the arts and cultural fields to the world of science.
The GreenXchange was first publicly discussed at the 2009 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Work is underway now, among the founding partners and technology partners that have been recruited, to begin putting in place the systems for operating the GreenXchange. The goal – from discussions with GreenXchange principals – is to use the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen as a key forum for building momentum and participation for the GreenXchange, with further announcements about GreenXchange platform availability by the Davos WEF in January 2010.
Think for a moment, about how the landscape of software is different today from what it was 20 years ago. By having the LAMP stack, as it is often called (i.e., Linux-Apache-MySQL, PHP), and all of the many other open source software products available via innovations like Creative Commons’ licenses, there is a much richer, more competitive marketplace, frequently featuring better alternatives to traditionally proprietary, closed offerings from commercial vendors.
Thinking about where we are today with software open innovation gives you a glimpse of what could be the transformative nature of the GreenXchange on the cleantech industry and other sustainability ventures in 5, 10, 20 years from now.
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