March 15, 2011

Crowdsourcing as IP-strategy

Crowdsourcing is a concept that is used ever more often when knowledge intensive industries are discussed. Arturas Vedrickas today briefly describes a location based social network known as Foursquare on the CIP FORUM blog that is planning to harness its large base of users. There are currently many interesting examples of crowdsourcing initiatives in the IT-industry where of course Wikipedia is one of my personal favorites. However, this concept is certainly spreading into other knowledge intensive industries such as the biomedical society. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the biotech revolution has transformed the whole pharma industry into a data driven reality where knowledge is key.


Crowdsourcing refers to outsourcing tasks that would usually be performed by people within a company or institution to an outside 'crowd' of people, outside the organization. This way of harnessing the power of the many differs from other types of open innovation in that members of the crowd nowadays has grown accustomed to generally expect some kind of incentive or reward. This has been a rather quick transition given that the term 'crowdsourcing' itself was coined less than 5 years ago, by Jeff Howe writing for Wired magazine.

Harnessing the Global Brain in Life Science

Early efforts in the biomedical field to use this innovation strategy was - not surprisingly - implemented in the fields most closely similar to the IT-industry. Namely bioinformatics. Some of these efforts included BioJava, BioPerl, BioPython, Bio-SPICE and BioRuby. Two early initiatives, in 2000, without the word "bio" in their names were Screensaver Lifesaver and Folding@Home. Both of these harnessed the power of volunteers. Foldin@Home models the thermodynamics of protein folding, while the Screensaver Livesaver used 3 500 000+ volunteers to run molecular modeling simulations, docking potential ligands into the binding sites of known drug targets for various diseases.

Indianapolis based pharma giant Eli Lilly was one of the first Life Science companies to implement this way of thinking. In fact, it is more accurate to say that Eli Lilly was part of creating and defining the field of openness within Life Science. At the same time as Folding@Home and SL were launched, Sidney Junell, then head of Lilly, organized a group of executives to explore new ways of working. Impressively, no fewer than three successful open innovation companies—InnoCentive, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, YourEncore, in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and Collaborative Drug Discovery, based in Burlingame, California—sprang from these discussions. For the past decade, Eli Lilly has maintained a leading position in the Life Science field of internet-led open innovation.

Several interesting initiatives have sprung up over the last few years in this industry. Within genomics, 23andMe (a model I have written about here on Intangitopia in the past) is a company that accumulates data from its customers through crowdsourcing. Customers of the personal genomics startup who submit samples of their saliva for genotyping have the opportunity to take part in surveys, which, when combined with their genetic information, can provide useful information to the wider group about genetic linkage. This approach of course becomes even more powerful still when genetic data are combined with contributions from patients. For Parkinson's disease 23andMe tries to achieve this through to collecting genetic data from individuals in a partnership with PatientsLikeMe and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Patients Like Me, in turn, is also a crowdsourcing site that allows its - by now 80 000 - members to share details of symptoms and treatments with each other, as well as with the research and medical communities. The reward in this case is to learn more about one's condition through the experience of others.

Business implications and using crowdsourcing as innovation strategy

Given the intellectual property difficulties that is generated by the volunteer computing models (Folding@Home and Screensaver Livesaver), these have largely been embraced by the academic and not-for-profit sectors. But what about the other models: are these also incompatible with IP? Of course not.

A recent example of an implemented corporate model for harnessing crowd-sourcing is that of Life Technologies (LT). The company announced in December a $7 million crowdsourcing initiative called the Life Grand Challenges Contest. Focus of the contest is on LT's new Personal Genome Machine acquired from Connecticut–based startup Ion Torrent. The sequencing technology costs $50,000 to buy and can sequence a sample at a cost of $500 in just two hours. But that is apparently not good enough for Jonathan Rothberg, founder and CEO of Ion Torrent. The first three $1-million challenges in the contest ask innovators to devise ways to make Ion Torrent's technology even faster, cheaper and more accurate.

Implementing crowdsourcing in your IP-strategy

A model that I have seen successfully implemented in the IP-strategy of a large biotech company actually used crowdsourcing. This particular company often used the Innocentive platform for this very purpose. Innocentive connects a community of solvers with seekers (companies that post technically challenging research or management problems). Any individual may register as a solver. Solvers pay no fees, but most formally register for a challenge before they receive the full, confidential outline of the project. While seekers pay to register on the site and again to register each challenge. If a problem is solved, pre-defined reward(s) is/are paid to one or more solvers out of the registration fee. Intellectual property is thus protected under secrecy agreements (formal registration for solvers) and transacted to the seeker as a reward is paid to a solver.

When the company had made a new discovery it posted the problem (not its solution/discovery) on Innocentive. This way, the company was typically able to "purchase" additional solutions to the same problem by paying out Innocentive rewards. An approach that was much cheaper than inventing these solutions in-house. Patent applications covering the various solutions would then be filed and consequently a much stronger position against invent-around risks resulted.

Alternative IP-strategies and IP-based business will be discussed during CIP FORUM in May.

(Btw, don't miss the early bird fee before the end of March)

Looking forward to see you there.

Tobias Thornblad

March 11, 2011

The new wealth of nations?

Borrowing the (in my mind bold) theme from CIP Forum 2011 and tying on Johan's previous post on patent filing, I'll try to give an my angle at this.

Johan touches upon a very interesting point, not only tied to IP but I assume business in general - when (or maybe if) will Asia (China) become the new epicenter. And that's of course where CIP Forum predicts that it will be the epicenter of intangibles rather than manufacturing. These are big question, but I'm a simple economist who likes graphs - so here's my stab at it.

Quantity - YES

Johan shows one strong indication of IP becoming more important to Chinese companies and this is probably another strong sign of China trying to move away from "made in China" to "invented in China". Two Chinese tigers are ZTE, now the worlds 4th largest handset company, and of course Huawei. But besides their business success, they are also the 2nd and 4th top PCT filers.

So it's clear - Chinese have understood IP and are going after it massively. And as Johan showed, so have the Koreans, while US, EU and Japan keep a fairly steady state.

Quality - Hmm.. let's find out

So let's try and look at whether this seems to be quality. And of course this is the million dollar question.
Trying to answer the modest "wealth of nations" question, I've at least found one proxy which feels objective, namely the World Bank. Diggin through their data I've found data for royalty and license payments and receipts, on an annual country basis.

As with any model or data - it's not perfect, but let's have a look at some results. I will present payments, income and balance for US, Germany, Japan, China and Korea. This will hopefully be a decent proxy for US, EU, "Old Asia", "Booming Asia", "Next Gen Asia".

Data Analysis - Royalty and License; payments, receipts and balance, 1997 - 2009.

This first picture will show us that all countries are receiving incomes but that it's very unevenly distributed with the US as the clear leader. With a very large order of magnitude, Japan (2nd largest) still 4x smaller than USA.

The second picture tells a slightly different story, showing that all count
ries have increasing payments. Again the US have largest payments.

Two interesting aspects of this would be that a) IP is a global asset b) the trade of IP is growing.

Looking closer at Japan, Korea and China we can see that the trends look quite similar. But let's take the analysis one step further and look at them on a country by country basis.

Starting with China - the outlook is quite dismal. Although there are some receipts, the annual licensing/royalty deficit is close to 10 Billion USD.

Looking now at Korea - seen as many as the real tiger and truly booming in the business space (especially in consumer electronics and telecom) lead on by Samsung ,LG, Hynix, Hyundai. Still the annual deficit is close to 4 Billion USD. And sure, royalty incomes are increasing fast, but payments even faster as the deficit is growing year-on-year.

Now ending on a hi-note with Japan currently with a positive balance of approximately 5 Billion USD. But although looking strong now, "break even" was reached less than 10 years ago.

Trying now to tie it all together, let's look at the all countries and perhaps the most important metric of all - payment balance.
This picture really says it all in my mind. The US are just miles ahead whereas the others are struggling and actually only Japan having an annual surplus.
I'd also like to highlight 2009 as an "odd" year in the data, where many changes happened. Maybe it's a freak thing or maybe it's tied to the financial climate, who knows. But before that the analysis was simple - everyone is paying Japan and US more and more money every year.

Closing thoughts
What I wanted to show with this exercise was that although Asian countries (mainly Korea and China) are booming in terms of patent filings and general corporate growth - they are still very much trailing in terms of IP royalty payments.

It could be tempting to draw the "simple" conclusions and say that their IP is worse or likewise saying that in terms of patent holdings - they are still miles behind the likes of Sony, Panasonic, Siemens, IBM, HP etc.
And maybe the truth is somewhere in between, i.e. that what you don't have in quality you make up for in quantity. I.e. when big IBM (with tens of thousands of patents) knocked on little ZTEs door - you'd pay up, regardless of quality.

I guess what you can say is that even if Asia seems to be catching up in the administrative arena (i.e. filing patents) they still seem to be losing the battle in the business arena.

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