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AT&T boss Mike Armstrong has a lot of cards on the table. Witness his forays into cable television, local phone service and Internet access. To support these bold initiatives, a few years ago Armstrong ordered his researchers to bulk up AT&T’s intellectual property position, a strategy that has sparked an almost sevenfold increase in the number of patents issued in 1999 versus just two years earlier.

Now look at 3M-the inventor of Post-it notes and Scotch tape-whose name is almost synonymous with corporate creativity. There, 1999 patent output fell by nearly 150, a 24 percent dropoff from the previous year.

It might seem that one of these longtime research leaders suddenly hired a bunch of brilliant inventors while the other has forsaken R&D. Hardly. In fact, the two are aggressively pursuing the same goal: innovation. In AT&T’s case, the company is storming into some white-hot and rapidly changing areas-so its braintrust upped the ante on patenting. Explains intellectual property and standards vice president Jeff George, “We want to build picket fences around the technologies that we think are most important for the future.”

3M is also striving to “fence off” vital technology areas. Part of that effort, though, is a push to reduce filings extraneous to 3M’s businesses-a strategy that can diminish total patent output but if done right improves the payoff from a company’s inventions. Indeed, officials cite a 25 percent rise in the number of new products introduced in 1999. Patenting remains central to 3M, says senior vice president for research and development Bill Coyne, citing a legal change a few years back that spurred a rash of filings responsible for much of 1998’s all-time high of 617 patents. But while he expects the numbers to go back up in the coming years, Coyne adds, “What we’ve put more emphasis on is making sure we’re commercializing our technologies more effectively.”

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