Here is a great quote from an article in the Booz & Company (formerly Booz-Allen) magazine Strategy+Business (registration required) — Uncaptured Fortunes in Intellectual Property
It’s the subtle little secret of the corporate revenue stream. Executives now recognize that intellectual property (IP) makes up the bulk of an organization’s wealth, and most chief executives will glibly claim that IP is the key to competitive advantage. Yet most CEOs pay no attention to leveraging or drawing income from those assets. How can they? Few even know what IP their company owns.
To be fair, companies have gotten wise to the sometimes significant revenues that can be gained through patent and technology licensing. In fact, by most estimates, annual revenues for such licensing have exploded from US$15 billion to $110 billion worldwide over the last 15 years. For many companies, however, that’s the easy part; the real challenge is to make their intellectual property serve the business, not be the business — that is, to benefit from valuable IP at the business unit level, where corporate strategy intersects with customers and markets. Unfortunately, very little historical knowledge or experience is available to guide executives in generating commercial advantage from what is in reality an entirely new class of assets. (emphasis added).
Ain’t that the truth. The author, David Kline of Rembrandts in the Attic fame, makes an important point I heard a number of other places as well: IP tends to be the purview of the legal department. As such, it is all about locking up the ideas, rather than exploiting them.
But that need not always be the case. Kline gives a case example where GE was able to exploit a remote turbine servicing technology by creating a new business model:
It devised an entirely new business model for its remote technology, one that leased it to customers while simultaneously licensing to them the associated IP and service procedures. GE would retain ownership of the hardware, blocking encroachment by competitors and enjoying significant licensing revenue. Moreover, GE would also retain rights to customer data from this system, which would enable the company to leverage everything it learned from operating and servicing 300 gas turbines globally to build a “predictive intelligence” platform for delivering service and supply chain improvements to the utilities. This vital intellectual asset was a key differentiator for GE that no competitor could match.
Finally, because the technology would be protected by license, GE could share proprietary knowledge about turbine operation with the utilities, allowing them to make their own adjustments to the equipment to boost performance and stability.
What I find so fascinating about this example is only in part that it utilized IP. The real fascination is the business model that fused manufacturing and services. If US companies are going to survive in the I-Cubed Economy, this type of fusion needs to become the norm — not the rare case study.