A Marketplace for Ideas

Stephen DeAngelis

May 21, 2008

In March 2007, I wrote a post entitled Dating Game for Innovation. The focus of that post was UTEK, a technology matchmaking company that provides researchers an outlet for their ideas and companies a way to outsource innovation by providing access to a database of more than 35,000 discoveries. Anne Eisenberg, writing in the New York Times, reports on a similar effort to get companies and innovators together [“A Buyer’s Guide to Inventions, in Plain English,” 11 May 2008].

“Inventors and companies like to court each other. Inventors need companies to move their ideas forward, and companies need inventions to help their businesses grow. But suitors sometimes have trouble finding that perfect partner. Now a Web-based service under development, the USA National Innovation Marketplace, offers a new tool intended to help with the matchmaking. The marketplace is an online registry that will have descriptions of inventions for browsing by prospective buyers.”

So far, the service sounds a lot like UTEK. Here’s the twist.

“Before inventions are listed, the registry will provide in-person or online workshops to help inventors recast their often technical prose in jargon-free descriptions for the business and industrial customers that are expected to shop at the site.”

That might sound simple, but it’s not. People like Brian Greene, who wrote The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, make good livings explaining difficult things to non-technical people. It’s the same reason that the “… for Dummies” series of books have done so well.

“The registry and its translation service are the brainchild of Doug Hall, chief executive of Eureka Ranch Technology, a consulting firm in Cincinnati. It has developed workshops over the last five years for transforming the language of patent abstracts and other arcana into simpler prose. Mr. Hall said listings for the marketplace would have prose makeovers to ensure quick, easy perusal by the intended readership. ‘Most people in business simply don’t have the time and resources to translate the language of difficult-to-understand technologies into real products that consumers will buy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of the business buyer’s biggest problems.’ The listings will have other improvements, too, he said. Company software will evaluate the invention’s probable cost to the buyer before the first sale as well as other business angles, and add the information to the capsule description.”

According to Eisenberg, inventors will bear the brunt of the costs associated with the registry.

“Inventors will pay a fee for the listing of no more than $2,000, Mr. Hall said. The registry, which will be at www.planeteureka.com, will not open officially until April 2009, but Mr. Hall says he has received many inquiries both from prospective buyers and sellers.”

This is a very different business model than that used by UTEK, which pays research labs for licensing rights to its discovery. It then sells those rights to its customers for shares of stock, which UTEK agrees to hold for one year. UTEK sees this as a high risk/high payoff model. Planet Eureka is much more conservative financial approach, but inventors can negotiate high risk/high payoff deals on their own.

“Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., says she thinks the registry has tremendous possibilities. ‘Mr. Hall understands that there is a lot of innovation lying dormant that could be packaged so that the commercial marketplace could understand it,’ she said. ‘Businesspeople don’t have the time or patience to reformat and translate technical information. And we don’t have enough translators in this space.’ Post-doctoral researchers at American universities might benefit from a service like Mr. Hall’s, she said. ‘We have an abundance of scientific expertise that is not necessarily attached to industry,’ she said. ‘We need to support them in developing their translational skills to get the benefit from the research funding that we have in the U.S. economy.’ Many geographic regions, too, might be helped by simply worded listings of inventions.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce also sees benefits to this approach and is cooperating with Hall.

“Mr. Hall’s partner in developing and refining content for the registry will be a nationwide group of organizations that participate in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a Commerce Department program aimed at helping manufacturers, including small and midsize businesses. For instance, M.E.P. centers in Utah, Washington, and Virginia will offer Mr. Hall’s workshops this year. Small companies that have products they want larger companies to commercialize are particularly interested in attending, Mr. Hall said, as well as independent inventors and university researchers in need of industrial partners. Inventors can sign up at the Planet Eureka Web site. ‘When we are in their region, we will notify them so they have a chance to attend a translation workshop,’ he said. Eventually, he plans to provide online training at the Web site.”

M.E.P. members benefit because they first dibs on dealing with inventors.

“Small and midsize businesses connected to the project through local M.E.P. centers will get the first crack at inspecting inventions, for the initial 100 days. After that, the listings will be wide open. Mr. Hall is seeking buyers as well as sellers, with advice from his advisory panel, which includes Best Buy and Future Works, a division of Procter & Gamble. Sandy Johnson, chief executive of the Mid-America Manufacturing Technology Center in Overland Park, Kan., which receives some M.E.P. funding, wants to use the registry’s services to help small manufacturing concerns in Kansas. ‘A business may have a brilliant idea,’ she said, ‘but if they need a small piece of technology to make it work, it’s virtually impossible to find right now,’ because of incomprehensible descriptions.”

When I discuss Development-in-a-Box™, I point out that it makes no sense for frontier economies to have to reinvent processes that are used globally in a best practice format. It also makes no sense to have to reinvent something that has already been invented. That is the beauty of Hall’s scheme. There is a caveat. Eisenberg reports that Hall and the inventors realize that providing plain language descriptions of inventions risks having them ripped off.

“To protect their ideas, Mr. Hall said, inventors planning a listing at the marketplace should first file a preliminary patent. If they don’t, a bit of concealment is in order, he said.”

You certainly don’t want to give up the “secret sauce,” as I like to call it. Filing for a patent is neither cheap nor easy, but the benefits certainly make the effort worthwhile. This is especially true if an inventor believes he can team up with a partner who believes the invention will give the company a competitive edge. In that case, the company will provide legal and financial help to protect the patent. As a businessman whose company is inventing new processes, I know that having a place to go to look for niche inventions that could enhance my company’s work could prove valuable. I suspect a lot of entrepreneurs will feel the same way.