Several times a month, I’d have lunch with one of my CEOs, and each time we’d find ourselves digging into the intellectual property developed by the company over the years, just to refresh ourselves about what the intended use was back then, and whether new developments or technologies might make these older ideas and patents relevant again.
Since I have been involved at the board level with so many companies over the years, sometimes I can see connections that might be missed by a CEO with a singular focus. So I was surprised and excited when one of these verbal fishing expeditions during a lunch brought up a technology the company had patented back in 1995 and forgotten. The Internet was young, and the patented product allowed a visitor to dial into a computer (does anyone remember dial-up electronic bulletin boards?) and be redirected to a screen that would allow the user to identify himself, pay any fees required for use and agree to the terms of service.
From my more recent experience, I recognized that this describes exactly what every guest must do when attempting to gain access to the Internet in a hotel, or Starbucks, or any of thousands of public places. And I recalled that there was a patent war starting to take shape in this segment, centered about who was first to patent just this guest access.
Related Article: Protecting Your Intellectual Property
It turns out that our patent was years ahead of those others, and was general enough to cover all forms of access to the Internet, not just dial up. The CEO began what continues as a licensing effort and lawsuits to protect the patent that could be worth more money in the end than the entire corporation was worth before the discovery.
Intellectual property is the principle asset of technology companies. The value of old patents cannot be easily estimated as new technologies reinvigorate those patents for new uses, such as the one we discovered during lunch. So: do you have hidden treasure in your vault?