Owning patents is not something to get excited about, says Kia Silverbrook, Australia’s top inventor


Kia Silverbrook

Is Kia Silverbrook history’s greatest inventor? On the surface, it might seem so. He holds 9,700 patents and patent applications internationally. Business Insider calls him the greatest inventor in the modern era. On the other hand, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor of the light bulb, only accumulated 2,332 patents.

Yet raw numbers tell only half the story, a fact which Kia himself was quick to emphasize. Patents, he said, merely gives one the right to prevent someone else from making a piece of technology.

“Having a lot of patents is like having a lot of legal contracts, it’s not something to get excited about,” he added.

Kia Silverbrook was in Singapore for the Distinguished Technopreneur Speaker Series (DTS). It is an initiative that engages the world’s top innovators to share their experience with entrepreneurs, industry professionals, researchers, scholars and students in the country. The dialogue with Kia was held on 13th September at Biopolis, the center of biotechnology in Singapore.

Disruptive technology is not about the technology

While Kia is a technologist, he is dismissive of technology for its own sake. Consumers often don’t care about the technology behind the product. They just want the thing to work.

Disruptive technology, he said, possesses two criteria. It must offer the same functionality at lower cost as compared to preceding technology. It must also be scalable, meaning it can be manufactured at a high volume.

Slashing costs does not just relate to manufacturing. It could refer to the ease of learning how to use a new product, the cost to switch technologies, and even the cost of customer acquisition.

I would add another criterion. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, the man who coined the term, disruptive technology must offer a new value proposition. In other words, it must offer customers new value which the old product does not.

Smart phone iPhoneThe iPhone was disruptive. It introduced a multi-touch screen and a finger-friendly user interface. It removed the physical keypad and made the phone a platform for app developers. Millions of these devices were sold. The new iPhone 5, however, isn’t disruptive. It is merely a sustaining innovation; an incremental performance upgrade on the same product.

Augmented reality and NFC, while nice technologies, aren’t disruptive. Yet. While they hold promise, technological limitations and market conditions prevent them from becoming ubiquitous. The self-driving car, while progressing rapidly, isn’t disruptive. It will have to jump over legal and manufacturing hoops first.

With some exceptions, figuring out which technology is disruptive is a retrospective exercise. Kia introduces the concept of the ’40-year delay’, where today’s technology can only be labelled disruptive decades from now, when manufacturing processes mature, costs fall, and the impact of the innovation is fully realized.

Betting on which startups will become the next Apple or Google is like groping in the dark. A company may be potentially disruptive, but the founder might not know it. Timing and execution could doom the startup. Perhaps the idea requires an enabler that doesn’t exist, which leads to two options. Give up on the idea, or invent that enabler (which typically requires billions in investment).

Disruptive innovation might be becoming more difficult to achieve

Innovation faces an uncertain future. With the help of a few charts and graphs, Kia illustrated why. The cost of innovation has gone up. Sure, the supply of scientists and engineers today, as well as the number of patents filed annually may be at an all-time high compared to a hundred years ago. Yet the number of truly disruptive, world-changing innovations has shown only modest growth (if any).

Scientific and technological breakthroughs now require more manpower. In the 19th Century, experiments in quantum mechanics were conducted by only one or two scientists. In 2012, the discovery of the Higgs Boson using the Large Hadron Collider involved over 5,000 scientists.

Startups developing disruptive innovation may find that scaling requires much resources. To succeed, one option is to find a partner to manufacture the product. Kia believes that entrepreneurs trying this approach should protect themselves.

“Have patents in place, otherwise you’ll get trampled upon,” he said.

Kia Silverbrook believes there are 6 technologies that will become disruptive. These are: Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, solar photovoltaics, 3D printing, robotics, and self-driving cars.

Innovation in some of these categories, such as artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, will be driven by incumbent companies in the United States with immense computational power and wherewithal. Google is an example.

Asian startups can still play a role in these arenas, however. A sentient Internet will offer up new opportunities for entrepreneurs that may not be even dreamed of. Self-driving cars may eliminate jobs like taxi drivers and parking attendants, but they will lead to new opportunities such as in-car entertainment systems.

Towards a collaborative future

As the world becomes more complex, research is also getting smarter.

While an audience member expressed concern about the recent manpower crunch in the engineering and research field, Kia believes smart research technology will be able to make up for the shortfall. Brilliant and passionate innovators, unswayed by investment banking’s monetary lure or patent trolling, will continue to thrive.

The future of innovation is also becoming increasingly collaborative. Scientists are already relying on crowdsourcing to conduct research. The SETI@home project lets anyone search for aliens. Foldit and EteRNA (see image below) turns the process of folding proteins and manipulating RNA into a game — and in the process they help scientists do some work.

Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics too will see intimate collaborations between different parties — large corporations, startups, and passionate amateurs.

The process of innovation itself is ripe for disruption.

Towards a collaborative future

Photo of iPhone: MJ/TR


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