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Inventing Locally, Marketing Globally

Thirdly, the Internet and other ubiquitous communications tools are enabling new global connections. Inventors everywhere are able to not only access patent databases, troves of online technical specifications, and genomic repositories but also take advantage of e-mail and collaborative software tools to brainstorm across borders and tap international markets. A record 49.9 percent of U.S. patents awarded in 2003 listed at least one non-U.S. citizen as a coinventor. Foreign entities will likely account for the majority of U.S. patent filings from 2004 onward, predicts CHI’s Breitzman. Some two dozen countries now produce significant levels of U.S. patents per capita, a figure that is highly correlated with higher GDP and standards of living (see the Global Invention Map).

For high-cost nations like the U.S. and Britain, this worldwide competition-which is intensifying as other countries beef up their educational systems and intellectual-property protections, and firms outsource high-tech jobs to lower-wage regions-means that professionals must prove their worth by moving up the intellectual-property value ladder. Instead of just completing assignments that are handed to them, employees need to be more inventive and more original in their thinking-often by finding new problems to tackle in the first place. Former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at Brandeis University, identifies two growing categories of work in today’s economy. The first he calls “symbolic analysis”; it involves the application of in-depth knowledge and includes jobs in R&D, design, and engineering. The second is “personal services” such as those provided by retail clerks, security guards, and hospital attendants. “Only the first [category] is commanding better pay and benefits,” Reich notes. “This category includes identifying and solving new problems.” In a nutshell, that’s exactly what inventors do.

The leveling of the international playing field enhances the long-standing premium on original thinking, and smart companies are becoming more and more open to licensing inventions from smaller competitors, wherever they may be. “We’re scanning the horizon for new ideas outside the company,” says Simon Beesley, professional-audio marketing manager for Sony Professional Services Europe, a 1,200-employee division of Sony. “We’re not as closed as we were ten years ago.” He cites as an example the company’s rollout of Hypersonic Sound, a directional-audio system developed by U.S. inventor Elwood “Woody” Norris (see “The Sound War). Sony is bundling the invention as part of plasma screen audiovisual systems. But Beesley says it is also selling the technology to dozens of retailers, banks, and museums across Europe that are “clamoring” to build products, machines, and exhibits that can beam audio narration or marketing pitches to one customer at a time. “Every time I show this to someone,” Beesley says, “they come up with a new idea for using it.”

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