Bidding for Big Ideas

Intellectual-property negotiations move from the back room to the auction block.
Esther SheinApril 3, 2006

Think of it as something like your next-door neighbors’ garage sale…except that your neighbors are named Hewlett and Packard.

What’s billed as the first live, open auction of intellectual property will take place on April 6 at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. It will be the headline event of a two-day conference sponsored by Chicago-based Ocean Tomo, which describes itself as an “intellectual capital merchant bank.”

The auctioneer’s gavel will come down on roughly 70 lots covering more than 400 patents, says Ocean Tomo chief executive officer James Malackowski, in categories including telecommunications, advanced materials and chemicals, financial services, location and identification, medical and biotechnology, and energy management. Some of the patents may seem like candidates for American Inventor — a virtual replica of your body that can “try on” a web retailer’s clothes in your stead, or a three-dimensional enhancement that plays on multiple media platforms — but the auction catalog claims also to contain patents “either currently owned or originally developed by some of the worlds’ leading companies and inventors.”

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Traditionally, individual patent holders have stuck to a few standard methods of monetizing their ideas. They may produce a patented product themselves, which may require significant start-up capital, or license the technology to another party, which often entails tedious negotiations that may or may not fend off litigation down the road. Private patent auctions are not unheard of, especially pursuant to bankruptcy proceedings; Ocean Tomo decided to conduct a public auction because so many patent holders asked for help in selling their intellectual property.

Indeed, “most inventors are not businesspeople,” acknowledges Andrea Rose, whose online system allows web shoppers to create a virtual fashion model with their own measurements, so they can “try on” clothing without leaving their computer screen. Rose is selling her patent — licensed in 2000 to My Virtual Model Inc., which will remain a licensee of the successful bidder — because she has 30-plus other ideas in the works and wants to “move on to other inventions that need my attention.”

Also on the block: CircleScan, a device that attaches to a video camera and encodes spatial information in “real-D,” according to Ian Bruce of BLS Technology, which is handling the product’s sale and marketing for inventor Eddie Paul. CircleScan differs from conventional 3-D systems, says Bruce, because the encoded information can display a more realistic, fully dimensional image on any platform — in theaters, on television or computer screens, even on iPods and cell phones — with only the investment of inexpensive 3-D glasses for the audience. (According to published accounts, the images look just fine, albeit two-dimensional, should you decide that cardboard glasses are not for you.) The technology is already employed in about 300 movie theaters, according to Bruce.

As for patent auctions, projections seem bright to Ocean Tomo. The company’s original goal was to offer 25 lots in San Francisco; based on this week’s auction, it’s planning another for the fall.