The Denver Post Opinion: Your Voice: Individuals empower innovation, by Benjamin J. Kwitek
This post originally appeared in The Denver Post’s Your Hub on July 8, 2014.
Benjamin J. Kwitek is an inventor and technology investor from Colorado. This article is based on a speech he gave at the IP2 Event at Stanford University in May.
I once took a class in ancient Chinese history. Raised on a melon farm in Eastern Colorado, my professor was an unlikely expert. Still, this didn’t stop her from studying in China and getting a Ph.D. from Harvard. She had an inspirational perspective on humankind. She once told me that the history of China, even the history of the world, is nothing more than a collection of individual stories.
In a world of nearly eight billion people, we often times think at 35,000 feet. We see the governments, corporations, and multi-national organizations but forget about the individual. This is unfortunate. The individual has always been the beginning of all great ideas and therefore empowers innovation in our society.
The Silicon Valley in California is the perfect case study. Perhaps the world’s most dynamic economic engine, it relies on smart innovators who begin in their garages or dorm rooms. They have formed Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Oracle and Facebook. To quote from the Apple advertisement loved by Steve Jobs, they are, “the crazy ones.”
The modern economy is underscored by a democratization of knowledge, likely unprecedented since the Renaissance. With a smartphone almost anywhere on the planet, anyone can access terabytes of information available in real time. We learn about political demonstrations in the Middle East through Twitter, inventions through Kickstarter and Korean dance trends through YouTube without any delay or filters. As Francis Bacon once said, “knowledge is power.” This power then has spread out to people everywhere. The result has been a reduction in institutional esteem. We don’t turn to corporations like we once did for their information and expertise.
So, the situation nearly all large companies and even governments find themselves in resembles the Innovator’s Dilemma described by Clayton Christenson. New ideas and systems are changing the way newspapers, retailers and even technology companies play. This is disruptive and frightening for them. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction is to pass laws and increase regulation thereby making it harder for individuals to succeed.
This is clearly the case with patents in America. The media has dramatized the court battles between the mobile phone giants and their technologies. They have also covered and sensationalized the increase in suits between Non-Practicing-Entities (NPEs) or “trolls” and other companies. Any small inventor, university, or company that does not manufacture widgets is now painted in this unfavorable light. Even President Obama and many in Congress have been critical of these small innovators.
The result was legislation, passed with lightning speed in the House, that would make it significantly harder for all patent-holding inventors – especially small inventors on the cusp of business success – to defend their intellectual property rights in court. Similar legislation seemed headed for quick passage in the Senate but was shelved last month out of concerns it could stifle the kind of innovation at start-ups and universities that the patent system is aimed at promoting.
We need to be very mindful of the “little guy” in the United States. Our history has been created by these individuals. Are there some problems with patents and litigation – absolutely, but we must step back and be strategic. Governments need successful companies and successful companies need individual innovators. While Fortune 500 companies have the political and financial resources to protect their interests, individuals are often overlooked. Although the most essential, ironically they are the weakest link in the chain of innovation.
Since the ratification of our Constitution, over 8.5 million patents have been issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Among the protected inventors are Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and even this author. Their inventions have propelled economic growth and opportunity for millions. Despite some criticisms, American patents are still the gold standard in the world. Foreign inventors and companies file thousands of patent applications here every month. They appreciate our system and how it protects the individual and his or her ideas.
An unprecedented opportunity lies in getting patents from the hands of inventors onto the production lines of companies. There is a lot of work going forward. Sometimes inventors and managers within large companies don’t speak the same language. It’s imperative that this dialogue occurs. When a better marketplace for ideas opens up, inventors will try harder with new products and services springing to life. This circle of innovation creates economic growth and vitality. Invention helps everyone and this was the genius of our Founders.
So, when we debate the merits of our patent system, we should remember that American innovation has been the cornerstone of our prosperity. Moreover, this innovation, like history itself, is all about individual stories. And, to end with the Apple slogan again, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”