Xerox scientist Robert Loce talks with Jessie Scanlon on understanding the real value of patents to a company
United States patent No. 7,227,779—"Method of Selective Edge Softening and Rendering for the Suppression of Halo"—wasn't just another line on Robert Loce's CV. It was his 100th patent—a milestone the Xerox principal scientist reached several months shy of his 50th birthday. The patents, all earned since joining Xerox Research Center Webster in 1981, cover a range of inventions in the fields of digital imaging and conventional and digital optics.
While some analysts use the number of new patents a company generates as a sort of innovation score, Loce himself is quick to say that patents are only as valuable as the value they bring to the company. In other words, a patent that a company neither uses nor licenses, or that doesn't offer some competitive advantage by, say, preventing another company from using the technology in question, isn't worth much, no matter how cool it is.
"When I was 25 years old I didn't understand the real value of patents. I thought the goal was getting the patent itself rather than getting value out of it," he says. As a result, he admits, some of those early inventions might have been less useful to the company. Thanks in part to serving on a Xerox panel that evaluated which technologies were worth patenting, Loce's thinking evolved.
Loce recently spoke with senior writer Jessie Scanlon about a life of invention, the importance of failure, how to keep the mind fertile (his scientific creativity isn't waning—he has 40 more patents in the pipeline), and the difference between a cool technology and a patent that will bring true value to the corporation.
So are you one of those people who got your first patent as a teenager?
Ha. No, but I always liked science. I started as a chemistry major at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, then switched to geology, which included some study of botany and biology. At the time, only oil companies were hiring geologists and I didn't want to work for an oil company. So I got a job at a haunted house in New Jersey. Then I heard from an old friend who was working in optics, and it sounded very cool and Star Trek-like, so I went back to Rochester and started studying optics. I was 23 when I arrived at Xerox as a lab technician, and I had some good mentors who let me continue going to school while I worked here. One early manager even helped me with my homework!
What was your first patent?
It was issued in 1987. The invention was directed toward finding an inexpensive method of making the light in a photocopier uniform across the photoreceptor. I still admire the spatial thinking that went into that invention, but have to recognize that it did not bring much value to Xerox compared to more recent patents.
What about a favorite one?
It's a group of technologies related to multiplex imaging that we patented about four years ago. It's so cool. Basically, it's a color printing technology that allows us to print multiple images on top of each other and view them one at a time by shining a different color of light on the page. So you could have a piece of paper with a strange psychedelic image on it. Change the light, and the image becomes, say, a woman's face with lots of round soft features. Change the light again and it becomes a dark building made of stone. People are holding the paper and flipping it over to see where the image went!
That does sound cool. Has it been developed into a product?
Quite a few large companies contacted us but we haven't struck the right deal yet.
What's your starting point for a new research project? Do you get interested in a scientific problem or technical challenge and go from there? Or do you think about the end product or the needs of Xerox customers, and let that be your guide?
With me, inspiration comes from different places. Many of my patents came from working directly with product programs. The development team tells me "a product is going to launch but we have this problem. Can you fix it?" Or, "We're going to be developing products like this over the next few years, could you scope out some problems and solutions?"
But I also get ideas by working on my own or just thinking about technology trends. Then there are ideas that just come out of nowhere. The other day I was out walking and saw a golf tee and I thought, that's an interesting shape, I wonder if I could incorporate it into an optical device. So I made something called an illumination blocker in the same shape. If you put it in the center of a lens, it makes the light projected very uniform.
Many of your patents have been developed in collaboration with cross-disciplinary teams. Is that chance or do you believe that the most interesting inventions come out of cross-disciplinary research?
These days it's hard to come up with a really useful widget. You have to integrate what you're doing into a system. And when you're working with a system you have to work with experts in multiple fields. So, for instance, I'm an imaging scientist, but I might need to work with experts in sensors and programming and actuators. To have an invention that's really critical, you need people with different skills working together.
When you work independently of a product team—in other words, when they haven't come to you with a problem—do you then also get involved in trying to bring that patent to market?
Occasionally I'm part of the product team that actually helps develop a finished product. Other times I've invented something, and thrown it over the wall to good engineers who improve my idea and get it to work. Finally, if a Xerox product team isn't interested, I work with the Xerox licensing department to find an outside organization interested in the technology.
That flexibility must help you stay fresh and excited about your research. But from a corporate perspective, is there pressure to work according to a more standard process—the scientists do science, the product development teams do products, etc.?
At Xerox I wouldn't say that there is a standard process. Some people are just more comfortable working close to a product or they like the adrenaline rush [of working under a shipping deadline]. Some people are made nervous by the hard deadlines and so they tend to stay in the lab.
Let's talk about inspiration. How do you keep your mind fertile?
Well, there are a few things. Xerox has a program that allows scientists to volunteer in public schools. So I teach a range of subjects, from mechanical physics to geology to frog dissection at Dewitt Road School in Webster, N.Y. It really does keep you fresh, having to sit with 4th graders. Their questions are so off the wall. I also spend a lot of time in the mountains. I just took my sons camping for the first time. A desk and computer seem really special after a weekend of being lost in the wilderness.
What percentage of your 100 patents have found their way into a product or service, either at Xerox or through a licensing deal?
Maybe 40% or 50% have been used in a Xerox product or licensed. I haven't counted. But let me say that as a research scientist you have to be very comfortable with failure. I've had managers say unless we're failing 20% of the time, we're not being aggressive enough. Some of my favorite inventions have never been used.
Also, whether or not a patent is actually used by Xerox doesn't fully describe the value of it. A patent is really a contract you have with the government to prevent others from doing your idea.
So a patent could be a sort of defensive move?
Yes, in the late 1980s, Xerox was issued a patent on one of my inventions that sat dormant for quite a while. At some point I told a person in our legal department to not bother paying the maintenance fees on that patent because it did not seem to bring Xerox any value. But it turned out that a competitor had approached us on this patent. For some reason we did not work out a licensing agreement. As a result, this competitor didn't fully implement the feature that they desired. Also it took quite a while for them to bring their scaled-down version of the feature to market. So, our patent seems to have blocked their use of a technology and might have resulted in longer development to work around our patent.
What sparked that different thinking?
After some of my first patents, I was lucky enough to be put on a panel that evaluated whether ideas were patent-worthy, and I was taught the criteria: How is this patent going to bring value to Xerox? Will it protect one of our products? Will it bring a partner to the table for licensing?
It sounds like every Xerox scientist—and for that matter, every corporate researcher—should get that training. Does Xerox try to expose all of its scientists to the evaluation process?
Many of us participate, though I wouldn't say everybody. Of course, there's feedback between the evaluation panels and the inventors so that they understand how and why decisions are made. Our research labs are pretty tightly coupled with our legal departments.
Is that recent? Xerox—or at least Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center—is known for developing some of the breakthrough innovations of the early personal computer industry in the seventies and then letting Apple walk off and commercialize them.
Maybe it's that legacy that makes us hypersensitive. Maybe that's why we review our ideas so seriously. There's an old book titled Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer. That smarts! And I think we've learned from it and have become more astute because of it.