Patent Mapping Tools: Sometimes a Picture Is Worth a Couple Hundred Words

Last week, a tech transfer professional at a university asked me which patent analysis tools Fuentek uses in our market-based technology assessments and other consulting work. Our conversation then evolved into a discussion about how we use patent mapping as well as the value patent maps provide in evaluating a technology’s commercial potential. I’d like to share with you the perspective that I shared with him.

Let me begin by being crystal clear: I firmly believe that analysis tools providing visual maps of the patent landscape play a useful role in evaluating a technology’s market potential and identifying potential licensees. Although the many product options vary in their specific details, all of them provide a good picture of the patenting activity in a particular field.

But we recently had a project that serves as an excellent example of how the picture provided by patent landscaping tools is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Performing comprehensive competitive technical intelligence (CTI) involves much more than just looking at a patent map.

Our client had modified a thin-film material in their portfolio so that it could be used in a new application. To protect our client’s interests, I’ll refer to that new use for the material as: a coating for widgets that increases their reliability and extends their life cycle. Our client wanted us to find the widget applications and industries that would be most interested in this new coating.

Now, these widgets are a small but crucial component in a wide variety of larger devices. And I mean crucial. If the widget breaks, the entire device stops working. Given the importance of having fail-proof widgets, the device makers — which BTW are a huge and highly fragmented market with hundreds or even thousands of companies worldwide — would be keen to see improvements in the widgets.

One of our first steps was to look at widget-related patents. Our patent landscape tool identified just a few, which at first glance implies that there are very few players in the widget market. Yet that picture was not the complete puzzle. The fact was: The widget makers simply were not doing a lot of innovating, so they didn’t have a lot of patents. And those who did were not particularly interested in being on the cutting edge. CTI that relies only on patent-based analysis would have missed this market behavior.

So what’s next? Well, looking at the patent landscape for materials made sense. But again, few patents popped there. Why? Our market research revealed that, as with software, which relies mainly on copyright, the materials industry focuses less on patents and more on trade secrets and know-how to protect their intellectual property. (By making the material’s formulation public, a patent makes it easier for competitors to find a work-around.) Furthermore, the applications for coatings are so varied that any patents that did exist would not have specified the widget as a specific embodiment, and so they wouldn’t come up as a hit in a typical widget-related keyword search.

So in this case, the specifics were such that patent landscape analysis clearly was not the only tool we needed to use to truly understand what was going on in the market and how those trends might affect the commercialization potential for our client’s thin-film coating.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that patent mapping is useless or that the tool we use had failed. I’m saying that the tool provided an accurate picture of patent activity, but it’s an incomplete picture of the market. Let’s make sure not to overestimate the value of these patent landscape pictures or rely on them to the exclusion of other important market analyses based on understanding the market structure and dynamics, derived from a careful look at the value chain.

BTW, in case you were wondering how this story turned out, our market research gave us our Oracle at Delphi! We found a guy who had written his Ph.D. dissertation on the endurance testing of these widgets’ coatings. We used his expert insights (which we validated by conducting a little more research to confirm what he said) to develop a matrix outlining the performance characteristics that various industries would want our client’s coating to offer. For example, some may want water resistance, some chemical resistance, and some a combination of several characteristics. Once our client does the testing, those results can be compared against our matrix of six important features to reveal which one or two industries have the best overlap and therefore should be the top priority when pursuing commercialization.

So if you use patent mapping tools in your technology evaluations, what do you think? Are your experiences similar to ours? Or do you have a different perspective? Post a comment below. Or (if you’re feeling shy) send me a private message.

Posted by Laura Schoppe

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