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SparkIP Launches Interactive IP Website: An ‘eBay’ for Patent and Licensing Data?

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VANCOUVER, BC – SparkIP, a privately owned Atlanta-based startup, last week launched SparkIP.com, the latest in a rapidly growing number of intellectual property search and management websites geared toward the scientific community.
 
SparkIP hopes to distinguish its portal from its competitors by creating a one-size-fits-all IP site for the entire scientific community that combines research, commerce, and community interaction features with cluster-based visual interaction tools, according to company officials.
 
However, according to a representative for Taeus, another recently launched online IP exchange, it may be unrealistic and counterproductive for any one site to become the “eBay” of patent information, and vendors would be better served standardizing the data housed on their sites and distinguishing themselves based on site-specific tools and features.
 
SparkIP formally launched its web portal at the Licensing Executive Society annual meeting, held here last week. The company was founded by Rob Clark, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering; Kristina Johnson, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University; and Tim Lenoir, chair in the department of new technology and society at Duke.
 
According to SparkIP CEO Ed Trimble, the founders – and in particular Johnson, who holds more than 40 patents – saw the need for a uniting set of tools that could help researchers navigate the complex patent landscape.
 
“We all saw opportunities in the fact that in IP today there is no fluid marketplace; no place where buyers and sellers can connect,” Trimble told BTW last week. “The marketplace is a fragmented set of relationships. So we created [the site] to be an electronic marketplace where buyers and sellers can connect.”
 
Currently SparkIP is in beta form and contains information on the approximately 3.5 million US patents dating back to the 1960s. What makes it different from the US Patent and Trademark Database or other patent search engines such as Google is that the patent information is built into about 39,000 so-called “Spark” clusters of related patents, Trimble said.
 
“You can drill in and out, and browse around in this visual interface,” Trimble said. “Rather than getting a long laundry list of information, which may be categorized, we put our listings of licensable technologies in the innovation landscape where people are doing other research. That allows you to find information in context. Yes, you can get expected results for your search, but you can also find interesting unexpected results.”
 
Users enter a search term, such as a scientific topic, inventor name, or institution, on the portal’s front page, and the site returns an overarching view of all patents containing those terms divided into cluster maps. A search for the term ‘cell-based assay,’ for instance, returns 308 clusters divided into categories such as ‘protein conjugates,’ ‘green fluorescent proteins,’ ‘whole-cell assay,’ and ‘fluid-sample analysis.’
 
Users can then choose to view another cluster map for any of the initial clusters, which displays sub-categories and how they are related. Further exploration into any of those clusters reveals more detailed information and eventually a list of relevant patents that can be further sorted using the site’s filters.
 
The visual tools are what currently distinguish SparkIP from other IP search sites, but the company plans to add several features that it hopes will be useful to scientists, tech-transfer officers, patent attorneys, and companies alike.
 
According to Trimble, these features will include information about which technologies are available for licensing; tools to facilitate connections between licensors and potential licensees; scientific journal articles; and grants. SparkIP is also in the process of adding US patent applications and international patents to the database.
 

“The data of what is for sale is a commodity, and your value needs to be on top of that.”

“We have lots of plans for expanding the site,” he said. “What you see today is really a foundation. We’re going to be adding advanced research features and commerce features. People will have the ability to log in and set up a ‘My SparkIP,’ if you will, and be able to track new innovation; get automatic notifications; identify other people and organizations they are interested in; and connect and collaborate with them.”
 
Now, the most important thing for SparkIP is to court potential users at universities, non-profit research institutes, and companies to add their licensable patents to the database. Currently, users don’t know whether a patent they are looking at is available to license or not, save for those that belong to four early-access partners: Duke University, Georgia Tech University, North Carolina State University, and Switzerland’s EPFL.
 
“We have focused a lot of our early energy on universities and government labs, and we’re going to continue to do that, because we feel like there is a lot of powerful, untapped, underappreciated innovation coming out of these organizations,” Trimble said. “Companies will be listing their technologies on the site, but we’re going to continue to focus a lot of our energy on the university environment.”
 
SparkIP is currently free to all users. Trimble said that after the company sufficiently builds out the site, it plans to charge subscription fees for people to use various features and access some data while keeping portions of the site free.
 
An IP Clearinghouse
 
SparkIP joins a growing list of portals dedicated to browsing and understanding the IP landscape and, in some case, connecting patent owners and potential licensees. A short list of these sites includes the USPTO database; Google Patents; the Kauffman Innovation Network’s iBridge Network (see BTW, 10/1/2007); FlintBox; PatentCafe; FreePatentsOnline; Ocean Tomo’s PatentRatings system; and the Delphion IP Network.
 
Matt Troyer, a marketing director at engineering consultancy Taeus, which also recently launched an IP portal focused on engineering patents, said that dozens of companies have tried over the years to develop an “eBay” for IP, but only a few exist today.
 
“In today’s market, building a core exchange such as ours is maybe one-tenth the price of what it would have been 10 to 12 years ago,” Troyer said. “There is a lot more domain knowledge, a lot more outsourcing available, and there are much better tools.”
 
Troyer said that the industry risks having some company reach a tipping point where “they have so many eyeballs on them that if you want to sell [IP] you’ve got to go there, just like eBay.
 
“That’s not good for the industry, because we’ll rely on this ‘Patent Bay’ to have all the innovation, and not [companies] like SparkIP and Taeus that are doing much more innovative things than what I call the commodity of the bucket. We don’t need that. We need innovation around the trading model, the buy-sell license model.”
 
All of the patent data contained on each of the aforementioned sites is the same because it is based on information from national patent offices such as the USPTO. Troyer said that the industry should do something similar for all of the data around the patents – namely the licensing status data and the categories for the patents.
 
“What I’m proposing is to commoditize the data,” Troyer said. “Let’s create a clearinghouse, [put] it on a [central] server, which is very inexpensive, and set up an XML data standard. And that data gets passed, so when you post something at the Taeus patent exchange, it should show up on SparkIP’s tool, just like that, because we all share data on this network.
 
“Therefore the industry benefits because we don’t have all this stuff in one place … under the control of a ‘Patent Bay,’” he added.
 
In such a model, Troyer said, portals would distinguish themselves by the features that they offer for browsing patent information, connecting users, or facilitating patent licensing deals. SparkIP’s unique offering would the visual clustering of patents. For Taeus’ portal, it would be tools that allow customers to independently post licensing data or communicate with potential IP sellers and buyers.
 
“The data of what is for sale is a commodity, and your value needs to be on top of that,” Troyer said.
 
Regardless of whether either model works – and SparkIP’s model is clearly not incompatible with Troyer’s idea – it seems that the demand for IP, and therefore IP search and management services, will continue to increase.
 
“We believe that the value of innovation and IP is only going to increase relative to other assets,” SparkIP’s Trimble said. “If you look at what’s happening with outsourcing, manufacturing, services, et cetera – what’s left? It’s innovation. So first-world economies are going to value this innovation, and what you need is a liquid marketplace where innovations can be identified and traded, and that’s what does not exist today.”