Four Ways To Get More Out Of Your Patent Landscape Studies

Published on 22 Mar, 2016

Patent Landscape Studies

Simon Sinek, in his TED Talk ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’, makes a prudent point. Interestingly, this very point makes a significant impact on R&D and IP professionals.

Sinek proposes an important yet simple three-step process for all strategic decision-making—start by asking ‘Why’ to either determine reasons to exist or challenge the status quo before establishing the ‘How’ and ‘What’ of the plan. Leading organizations, such as Apple, have figured to ask the existential question first before setting out to create products and solutions that eventually find millions of customers worldwide.

Taking a page out of Sinek’s approach, we believe, R&D and IP professionals can derive far-reaching impact if they approach technology or patent landscape studies from a more strategic perspective..

Let’s begin by asking why.

1. Dig Deep

Every year, R&D and IP professionals commission thousands of patent or technology landscape reports, analysing millions of patents filed or granted over the last few decades.

The science of analysing and presenting huge volumes of patent data has witnessed considerable innovation over the years including:

  • Software tools to classify patents
  • New ways to present data
  • Introduction of heat maps
  • Hundreds of chart variants
  • Slice-and-dice views that provide a snapshot of the specific technology in question.

Ironically such elaborate exercises fail to go beyond impressive graphs and pretty charts if they are broad-based, and not spend enough time and effort on figuring out why we need such studies and what we expect to find.

For example, a few years ago a large multinational company commissioned Aranca to look at the packaging landscape for a specific beverage type. His objective was to study the landscape and find if and where there are significant innovations. The question indeed was quite generic. And, so was the finding; no significant innovation has happened in the domain over the recent years.

While not finding anything is also a finding, our philosophy is that the more detailed and focused questions we have to research and analyze, the more insightful and fruitful observations and results we can deliver, offering a higher client ROI. For example, one of the queries could have been to observe a wider beverage segment, and figure if an existing idea in that segment seemed relevant and could be adopted in this client’s scenario.

Hence, it makes a lot of sense to just spend a few minutes to dig deep and ask ‘Why’.

2. ‘Why’ Matters

Landscaping reports in many situations are done as a routine exercise at predefined timeframes with ‘we wanted to see what is happening or changing in this domain’ being the raison d'être.

In a few cases, there may be specific situations like an acquisition or evaluation of a new technology domain that may be the driver for landscape analysis. In either case, ensuring that you can get more of the need-to-know insights rather than the good-to-know trends is where answering the ‘Why am I getting this landscape done’ question is important.

It is all about getting the objectives or hypothesis right, and here is an illustrative list of ‘Why’ questions that you may consider:

  • What problems are researchers solving? Implications on future product or process design?
  • How exactly are our peers driving competitive advantage through R&D efforts or current patent portfolio?
  • Is technology evolving rapidly in the end-markets or applications that we currently play in?
  • How can we monetize our patents or know how in other technology domains?
  • Where should we focus our R&D efforts in a given domain?
  • What is the quality of our patent portfolio within a given technology domain?

Here is an example.

Let’s say you are keen to study the landscape of mobile phone batteries. Here, generally, you would have commissioned a report to study technology patents in the field and determine if your competition has a time to market or technology advantage.

Once again, generic questions shall yield generic results. Hence, a connecting question is far more important - it’s not about what technology patents exist, but rather their business implications, and whether such research would find a way back into product design.

Simply put, you should begin with the question, “what is bothering you?

However, if you are really unsure of the “why”, then begin with a broad-based, basic landscape study. Then, depending on the results, delve deeper for the level two exercise. This works best for emerging areas such as bio-sensors or wearable devices, where the research ecosystem is constantly evolving with multiple industry participants driving research in all directions.

An easier approach, if you are unsure of the ‘Why’ when you begin, evaluate (for example) patents for the last five years and observe what others have done. This might just tell you what the ‘Why’ is, and help you frame the detailed questions.

Naturally, it’s pertinent to get the right answer to the “Why”, as it lays the foundation of “how” the research would be planned and executed.

3. Work The ‘How’

Typically, executing most patent landscape projects is about defining taxonomies, putting together relevant search strings, compiling patents into a database, classifying patents and generating loads of dashboards and charts. That’s perfectly fine as a scientific process, and works well when you do not have a clear ‘Why’ in mind.

Now, if you intend to find answers to your question on competitive advantages—as in the earlier example—will the standard process of developing 20 charts on company-wide trends or map of competitor patent filings organized around the taxonomy give you the necessary insights? Probably not!

This is where the art of using landscaping for a strategic purpose comes in. For instance, the focus of landscape research shifts to observing specific data points, developing an understanding of where a specific competitor is focusing his R&D efforts, product-patent mapping, and most importantly the impact in terms of new product introductions or higher market share.

With a clear objective in mind, you will have to look at the design of the landscape research process differently from a search, organize, mining and data analysis perspective. Or better still, work with the research partner who knows how to exactly realign the research approaches depending on the specifics of the questions being asked.

4. ‘So, What?’

Evidently, Sinek’s framework of ‘Why-How-What’ applies aptly on the patent landscaping research exercises to derive maximum value. However, in our opinion, there’s one critical aspect that would differ from Sinek’s approach. Instead of asking “What”, we should ask, “So, what!.

Let’s take the same mobile batteries example. Just because your competition may have been working on certain brilliant technology, you need not be worried about it because the technology itself and manufacturing may be so complex that there might be no commercial feasibility.

We strongly recommend that the moment you hear your competitors have a lot more patents in a particular sub-technology domain—both in terms of the breadth and depth—you need to boldly ask, “So, what?”. Immediately ask your research partner to study whether these patents are helping your competitor derive better advantages, and are they able to use any of these patents in products? If eventually the answer is no and the competitor doesn’t enjoy significant market share, their patents wouldn’t impact the market at all. Here, in such an exercise, we may respond that your competitor may take at least 5 more years to commercialize the patents, or unless production ramps to a million units a day, the battery is going to cost at least $50 to $100 in the market.

Once you determine how the players in the landscape are deriving advantages through R&D efforts, we recommend, go beyond and deeper than the general scope of patent landscape research. Here, depending on what exactly you want to know, research partners like Aranca can focus on only the relevant patents to determine product-to-patent mapping and market information to effectively answer your questions. And, not waste resources on studying the universe of patents unnecessarily.

Clearly, it is pretty evident that if we apply Sinek’s approach—albeit with a tweak to the segment of ‘What’ to the patent landscape research, customers can better define tactical and strategic plans for their organization.

All by articulating your ‘Why’ properly to get the ‘How’ executed well, and determine the ‘So, what’ as your strategic tool to gain the fruitful insights into maximizing your competitive advantage. And while you are at it, don’t forget to thank Sinek for that.