Thursday, May 30, 2013

GE Announces Partnership With Online Start-Up To Develop Patents

One of the more recent and inventive ways of getting around the old and insanely slow-moving bureaucracy that is the US Patent System has been Quirky.  An online startup created in 2009, Quirky is an ingenious form of crowdsourcing.  Anyone can submit an idea for a product, and their team creates an actual prototype.  In return, Quirky retains rights to the invention, as well as exclusivity with the inventor.

It's a model that's fledgling, but clearly one that major players have been paying attention to, specifically one of the oldest and most profitable major players, General Electric.

GE has announced that come May, it will be sending some of its "most promising" patents to Quirky for development, creating a partnership between an internet start-up and a manufacturing giant that, if it works, could certainly become the R&D-to-product model of the 21st century.

Although  these are going to be, literally, thousands of patents GE will be releasing to Quirky, this initial collaboration will mainly focus on three specific areas: optics, barrier coatings, and telematics.  GE hopes Quirky can develop its holographic storage technology for solutions in fingerprint scanning and medical optics.  With barrier coatings, GE is specifically focused on electronics, where its Ultra-High Barrier technology could one day lead to thinner laptop, tablet, and other electronic devices that are protected and cooled by thin-film encapsulation designs.  Finally, in the realm of telematics, further developments in existing technology could speed up tracking fleet software as well as improve vehicle navigation systems- the latter being very closely examined by automobile giants like Ford and Nissan for their recent pledge to incorporate automation into future vehicles.

Quirky’s Ben Kaufman (center) announces the partnership, with Mark Little (left) and Beth Comstock of GE.
This is not going to be the first time GE has partnered with Quirky, as they already have a track record of individual projects coming to fruition; one of the most successful was a "smart" milk container called the MilkMaid, which can detect when the milk it holds spoils.  GE also recently collaborated with Kaggle, an online service that provides data analytics to any research or project info a company wants scrutinized, in several medical and aviation projects.

This most recent announcement, however, signals a shift for GE, where individual "toe-dips" into opportunities with internet startups have now become full-fledged, long-term strategies.  Perhaps the best direct effect of all this?  Less patents sitting around collecting dust means less of a chance they're used only as bait in lawsuits and litigations against inventors trying to move them from idea to reality.  As founder and CEO of Quirky Ben Kaufman put it, "For years, patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress while protecting inventors and becoming the source of inspiration for future creators.."

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

US Gas Boom Lures Overseas Investment

Lost in the economic benefits shale gas drilling has been providing for the American economy
domestically are the issues it's caused for businesses overseas, especially Europe, where natural gas costs three-quarters more than here.  Consequently, the US natural gas landscape has very quickly become a magnet for foreign investment.   Many businesses are rather loudly musing about the possibility of expanding to the US, and a few have already moved to outright action:

BASF, the massive chemical corporation based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, has announced its intention to further expand investments in North America, citing cost advantages in keeping production near cheap, natural gas as a factor.  The company has already shifted $5.9 billion in investment to the US, as well as construction of a formic acid plant in Louisiana.  In addition, the Canadian Methanex announced back in January of plans to begin moving their Chilean facilities to Louisiana as well after coming to a partnership agreement with Chesapeke Energy Corporation to supply them with natural gas.  Austrian Voestalpine has also announced plans to build an iron-ore plant in Texas to take advantage of low prices as well.  It's estimated the plant will create 150 permanent jobs.

Construction has already begun on BASF's formic acid plant in Geismar, La.

These developments are not just limited to the energy markets.  Natural gas is involved in the production power of pretty much every major industry worldwide, from plastics to steel to, of course, oil.  And while current prices may not continue, the natural gas boom is projected to be on course in
its current trajectory for quite awhile; music to the ears of corporations looking for staying power.  Investment potential is also in the interests of Asian-based businesses that are at the mercy of even higher gas prices than their European counterparts; this could very well be a migration trend that goes on well into the decade.

Voestalpine's reduction plant in Texas will be a $715 million investment.
Conversely, it's important to keep in mind through all this that the gas boom is in a sweet spot where the gap between supply and demand is so vast, with resources so un-allocated, that it's only a matter of time before demand catches up.  More businesses, domestic and international, will mean more production, driving up prices.  In addition, the Obama Administration is also contemplating raising natural gas exports, which would lower rates overseas.  So far, however, none of this has been enough to discourage the companies that have already taken the plunge, clearly signaling widespread confidence across the global manufacturing landscape in the future of North American natural gas production.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.