End of an era? CSIRO wifi patent nears expiry

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End of an era? CSIRO wifi patent nears expiry

What's next for Australian inventors?

A patent that has delivered Australia's CSIRO $430 million and counting will expire in the US on November 30, 2013, bringing to a close a critical chapter in Australia’s innovation history.

The wireless LAN technology, invented by CSIRO scientists in the early 1990s, is expected to be in more than five billion devices by the time the patent expires.

Senior CSIRO executive Nigel Poole, who has led a major patent licensing and litigation program in the US, said two court cases defending the WLAN patent remain underway in the US.

While these cases may continue past November 30, CSIRO will not be able to extend the patent past its expiry date. Patents have a maximum life of 20 years in the US, and when CSIRO patented the WLAN technology the term was 17 years. Its WLAN patents in 18 other markets are also nearing expiry.

Last year the technology won a European Inventor Award in the non-European category, with the European Patent Office recognising the work of inventors John O’Sullivan, Terry Percival, Diet Ostry, Graham Daniels and John Deane.

At the time, then minister for science and research Chris Evans said it was hard to imagine an Australian-invented technology that had had a greater impact on the way we live and work.

The worldwide attention given to CSIRO’s acclaimed and now essential invention belies the fact that, as chief scientist Ian Chubb reminded us this week, Australia is not performing well in the global innovation stakes.

“Almost all other OECD countries are much more likely than Australia to develop innovations that are new to international markets,” Chubb told the National Press Club yesterday.

Networking nous

Chubb wants to create better links between business and universities, part of his broader plan to boost Australia’s status for skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

“This should be about partnerships and working together and understood differences – not sitting in our silo from which we forever lament the efforts of the others.”

It is a view largely shared by former CSIRO deputy chief executive and current vice president for innovation with ResMed, Bob Frater, who spoke on the genesis of the CSIRO patent to a group of students at the Melbourne Business School this week.

The CSIRO invention came out of the group's pioneering work in radioastronomy, with many of those involved moving between industry and the research sector.

“Innovation isn’t a happy accident. People and networks are critical,” Frater said.

“Networks come from ability and diversity of experience. You don’t get a network by sitting in your office.”

During his time as a lecturer at the University of Sydney, Frater refused to make any permanent appointments for people aged below 30, instead encouraging them to head overseas to do something different and come back with additional networks and experience.

“The importance of movement in and out of industry from academia can’t be underestimated,” Frater said.

He first mapped the networks and circumstances that led to the development of the WLAN technology in 2003, and is still of the view that leaders and educators need to push those they mentor to build networks.

“If we’ve got people who are moving in and out of academia and going into small companies and coming back out, not doing contract work for the company but being part of the company, they will change the way they think about education.

“We’ve got to really change the scene.”

The many roads to invention

CSIRO’s Poole argued there are many paths to market for inventors, not all of which require the networks and history behind the WLAN technology.

He cited the case of Ric Richardson who founded Uniloc based on the security software he patented in 1992, which subsequently ended up in patent litigation with Microsoft. Uniloc was ultimately successful.

“Uniloc was developed in the front room of a house…Ric Richardson had a flash of inspiration.”

Poole said innovation is a haphazard, unpredictable and very differentiable process.

“You want to make sure you’ve got the grinding accumulative slug going on and also freedom and sponsorship of the serendipitous inventions and flashes of genius.”

Frater said more room needs to be given to foster innovative thinking, instead of the current focus on “commercialisation plans” for everything.

“We need to be able to have these exploratory early phases without them having to be critically assessed as a success or failure, with the understanding that it’s all about learning.

“If you really want new and exciting things to happen you’ve got to leave a lot of space for people to think, because if you can specify it now, it’s not new.”

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