French Entrepreneur Fourneau Was Against Law, But Used It

The existence and details of patent laws can matter for creating incentives for invention and innovation. The patent laws in Germany and France in the 1930s reduced the incentives for inventing new drugs.

(p. 141) German chemical patents were often small masterpieces of mumbo jumbo. It was a market necessity. Patents in Germany were issued to protect processes used to make a new chemical, not, as in America, the new chemical itself; German law protected the means, not the end.   . . .
. . .
(p. 166) Fourneau decided that if the French were going to compete, the nation’s scientists would either have to discover their own new drugs and get them into production before the Germans could or find ways to make French versions of German compounds before the Germans had earned back their research and production costs—in other words, get French versions of new German drugs into the market before the Germans could lower their prices. French patent laws, like those in Germany, did not protect the final product. “I was always against the French law and I thought it was shocking that one could not patent one’s invention,” Fourneau said, “but the law was what it was, and there was no reasons not to use it.”

Source:
Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Good Laws Protect the Innovator

James Burke writes well, and what he writes is often stimulating, and thought-provoking. On the other hand, some of what he writes is exasperating—he writes in sweeping generalities, and often his ‘connections’ are exaggerations, giving no weight (or even mention) to alternative, equally plausible accounts.
But on balance, I enjoy listening to him. Here is one of the bits I especially liked:

(p. 19) Because the rule of law exists, and above all because it encourages and protects acts of innovation with patent legislation, we in the modern world expect that tomorrow will be better than today. Our view of the universe is essentially optimistic because of the marriage between law and innovation. Law gives an individual the confidence to explore, to risk, to venture into the unknown, in the knowledge that he, as an innovator, will be protected by society.

Source:
Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo’s Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.

Controversial Patent Reform

PatentBarGraphs.gif    
Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) The sweeping patent initiative — backed by a business coalition dominated by technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. — would . . . shift the balance of power of the U.S. patent system. It would make it a bit harder for holders to protect patents.  Advocates of the legislation contend the current system encourages patent litigation and costly judgments against infringers — and stifles innovation.  They say the proposals are designed to bring patent rules in line with the rapidly changing U.S. economy, where inventions often reflect hundreds of potentially patentable ideas.

Mark Chandler, Cisco’s general counsel, dismissed concerns that non-U.S. companies might gain some advantage by the bill. He said the proposed changes would strengthen companies at “the heart of innovation in the American economy,” better positioning them to compete at home and abroad.

Opponents of the legislation argue that it would make it easier for foreign competitors to legally copy patented methods and products.

For the full story, see:
GREG HITT.  “Patent System’s Revamp Hits Wall; Globalization Fears Stall Momentum in Congress; AFL-CIO Sends a Letter.”  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 27, 2007):   A3.
(Note:  ellipsis added.)

Alaska Air Used Skunk Works to Develop Check-In Innovation

 

AlaskaAirDeparturesTable.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

The innovation described in the article excerpted below is credited as arising from a ‘skunk works’ project.  There’s a neat book called Skunk Works that describes how Lockheed set up an autonomous unit to develop the first stealth air force technology.  (Their plant was in a smelly part of town, so it was dubbed the ‘Skunk Works.’)

Clayton Christensen has recommended that established incumbent companies set up skunk works operations in order to develop disruptive technologies that would not survive if they were developed within the main corporate culture and infrastructure. 

(In the article excerpted below, it is puzzling to read that Alaska Air went to the trouble to take out a patent, even though they apparently have no intention of enforcing it.) 

 

(p. B1)  ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was planning a new concourse, prime tenant Alaska Airlines insisted on a counterintuitive design: "The one thing we don’t want is a ticket counter," said Ed White, the airline’s vice president of corporate real estate.

So the 447,000-square-foot Concourse C, which opened in 2004, has only one small, traditional ticket counter, even though the carrier’s 1.2 million Anchorage passengers checked in through that area last year. This unconventional approach — which uses self-service check-in machines and manned "bag drop" stations in a spacious hall that looks nothing like a typical airport — has doubled Alaska’s capacity here, halved its staffing needs and cut costs, while speeding travelers through the building in far less time.

. . .

(p. B4)  Alaska’s design in Anchorage has turned heads in the industry, and in 2006 the airline was awarded a U.S. patent for the check-in process, something it calls the two-step flow-through. Mr. White says his company isn’t trying to keep competitors from going down the same path, but pursued the patent more to reward the many employees who helped to bring the idea to fruition.

Other airlines quickly sent scouts up to Anchorage to check out the new concourse, including a team from Delta Air Lines Inc., Mr. White says. A few months ago, Delta completed a $26 million renovation of its check-in hall at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the finished product looks remarkably similar to that of Alaska Airlines. Greg Kennedy, Delta’s vice president for customer service there, says the new layout has enabled the airline to process passengers checking in during the peak spring break travel period in 20 to 30 minutes at most, compared with two or three hours three years ago — and all in the same amount of square footage but 50% more usable space. Mr. Kennedy says he isn’t aware of a visit to Anchorage but doesn’t dispute it.

. . .  

Alaska, the nation’s ninth-largest carrier by traffic, started a "skunk works" lab a decade ago to figure out how to use technology to make air travel less of a hassle for passengers. Out of that effort came the airline’s ground-breaking ability to sell tickets on the Internet and allow fliers to check in online, developments other carriers quickly followed.

 

For the full story, see: 

SUSAN CAREY.  "Case of the Vanishing Airport Lines; Alaska Air Speeds Up Flow Of Passengers by Jettisoning Traditional Ticket Counters."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., August 9, 2007):  B1 & B4.

 

  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 

Entrepreneur Bets His Wealth on a Risky, Important Project

 

  "Alfred E. Mann, at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., has put nearly $1 billion of his own money into developing an insulin that can be inhaled."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. C1)  LOS ANGELES, Nov. 15 — Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, flopped miserably with a seemingly can’t-miss idea. But Alfred E. Mann is so certain he can succeed that he is betting nearly $1 billion of his own money on the effort.

Pfizer’s failure was a form of insulin that people with diabetes could inhale rather than inject. But last month, after selling only $12 million worth of inhaled insulin in the first nine months of the year, Pfizer said it would take a $2.8 billion charge and abandon the product.

Mr. Mann, the 82-year-old chief executive and controlling shareholder of the MannKind Corporation, is not deterred. He says his company’s inhalable insulin is not just a way to avoid needles but is medically superior to Pfizer’s product and to injected insulin.

If he is right, he could help change the way diabetes is treated.

“I believe this is one of the most valuable products in history in the drug industry, and I’m willing to back it up with my estate,” Mr. Mann said at his 23,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The interview took place on a Saturday evening, which Mr. Mann said was the only opening in his seven-day work schedule.

Despite Mr. Mann’s remarkable entrepreneurial career — he has founded more than a dozen aerospace and medical device companies — there are people who wonder whether he has so much invested in this latest effort, both financially and emotionally, that he cannot see any odds against him.

“I don’t know of an individual who has spent as much of a personal fortune on a long shot,” said Andrew Forman, an analyst with WR Hambrecht & Company. Mr. Forman said MannKind faced numerous regulatory and patent challenges, as well as possible competition from the leaders in injected insulin, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, which are also developing inhalable products.

 

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Betting an Estate on Inhaled Insulin." The New York Times  (Fri., November 16, 2007):  C1 & C5.

 

  "The inhaled insulin device, about the size of a cellphone."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 

Von Hippel Promotes User-Driven Innovation

 

     "Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., left, and Dr. Nathaniel Sims, with hospital devices Dr. Sims has modified. Mr. von Hippel says users can improve on products."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

Some innovation is done by the devoted for free.  But in his books, and in the article excerpted below, I think von Hippel puts too little emphasis on the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur’s profit motive, as drivers of innovation. 

One example is the Moveable Type free program that underlies this, and many other blogs.  It is often described as one of the best blog platforms, but it is hard to use for a non-techie, kludgey, and very limited in some obvious ways.  For example, there apparently is no way that I can make comments to the most recent 10 entries visible on the main blog page.  And there is only limited backup capabilities.  And the spell-checker does not have "blog" in its dictionary, and asks me if I really meant to type "bog."

You can bet that if Moveable Type was produced for profit, they would have provided users these obvious capabilities.  And I would rather pay for a more capable program, rather than get a less capable program for free.

 

(p. 5) DR. NATHANIEL SIMS, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has figured out a few ways to help save patients’ lives. 

In doing so, he also represents a significant untapped vein of innovation for companies.

Dr. Sims has picked up more than 10 patents for medical devices over his career. He ginned up a way to more easily shuttle around the dozen or more monitors and drug-delivery devices attached to any cardiac patient after surgery, with a device known around the hospital as the “Nat Rack.”

. . .

What Dr. Sims did is called user-driven innovation by Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Mr. von Hippel is the leading advocate of the value of letting users of products modify them or improve them, because they may come up with changes that manufacturers never considered. He thinks that this could help companies develop products more quickly and inexpensively than with their internal design teams.

“It could drive manufacturers out of the design space,” Mr. von Hippel says.

It is a difficult idea for research and development departments to accept, but one of his studies found that 82 percent of new capabilities for scientific instruments like electron microscopes were developed by users.

. . .

One problem with the user-innovation model is that it can run into intellectual property rights protections.  . . .

. . .

. . . , Mr. von Hippel’s ideas are up against more conventional forms of user-aided design, such as sending anthropologists to study how people use products in their daily lives. Companies then translate their research into new designs.

Even some of Mr. von Hippel’s acolytes remain cautious. “A lot of this is still in the category of, ‘You could imagine this working out really well,’ ” says Saul T. Griffith, who as an M.I.T. engineering student was part of a group of kite-surfers who developed products for their sport that have since become commercialized. Mr. von Hippel wrote about Mr. Griffith in his 2005 book, “Democratizing Innovation.

 

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL FITZGERALD.  "Prototype How to Improve It? Ask Those Who Use It."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., March 25, 2007):  5.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

 

von Hippel has two main books in which he defends his user-driven innovation ideas:

von Hippel, Eric. The Sources of Innovation. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

von Hippel, Eric. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2005.

 

Academic Entrepreneurs in a Toxic Wasteland

 

   The Berkeley Pit was once a copper mine, and now holds a lake of toxic waste.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Here are a few paragraphs from a fascinating story about a couple of people who seem to be practicing what Taleb is preaching in The Black Swan:

 

BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

“I love the idea of looking at toxic waste and finding something of value,” said Ms. Stierle, 52, a chemistry researcher at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

For decades, scientists assumed that nothing could live in the Berkeley Pit, a hole 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide that was one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company suspended work there. The pit filled with water that turned as acidic as vinegar, laced with high concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium and zinc.

. . .

Mr. Stierle is a tenured professor at Montana Tech, but his wife gets paid only for teaching an occasional class or if there is a grant to finance her research. From 1996 to 2001 they applied for dozens of grants, but received only rejection letters. So they financed their own research, using personal savings and $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments. In 2001, they won a six-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

“Their work is considered a very high-risk approach,” said Matthew D. Kane, a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It takes a long time to get funding, and some luck to find active compounds.”

Unlike scientists at large research universities, who commonly teach only one class a year and employ graduate students to run their laboratories, Mr. Stierle teaches four classes each semester at a college with 2,000 undergraduates and no major research presence.

. . .

The couple said they were negotiating privately with a pharmaceutical company to test some of the compounds they have discovered and possibly turn them into drugs. As they wait, they open another Mason jar filled with murky pit water, draw a sample and return to work.

“The pit very easily could have been a complete waste of time,” Mr. Stierle said. “We just had luck and worked our butts off. We take that first walk into the dark.”

 

For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER MAAG.  "In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland."   The New York Times  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

BerkeleyPitMap.gif   In the photo immediately above, Don and Andrea Steirle work in their lab.  The map to the left shows the location of the Berkeley Pit.  Source of the photo and map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.