• WisBusiness

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tom Still: A little about a lot: Patent lawsuits, jet fuel from plants, angel investing and more


By Tom Still
A little about a lot of things:

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation isn't the only organization accusing Apple Inc. of infringing on a high-tech patent. A few days after WARF filed suit against the technology giant, a Texas-based company did the same based on a different complaint.

WARF, the patenting and licensing arm for the UW-Madison, filed suit Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Wisconsin's Western District, alleging Apple infringed on discoveries by four professors. At issue is whether Apple's A7 processor – used in the iPhone 5S, the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina display – incorporates technology developed by Gurindar Sohi and three others in 1998.

Hilltop Technology LLC filed suit against Apple a few days later, accusing the company of infringing on Hilltop's work in developing a "Capacitive Type Touch Panel" used in touchscreen devices and modules.

With a reported $140 billion in cash on hand, Apple is a big litigation target. Then again, Apple can outlast and outspend most challenges to its intellectual property, whether it feels the allegations are fishing expeditions or not. An exception to that legal war of attrition could be WARF, which has $2.4 billion in assets and has proven in past infringement cases it's up to the fight.

Both lawsuits are reminders of why patent fights should remain a province of the federal courts, not state-based laws and litigation – a recent and somewhat troubling trend, especially for entrepreneurs who worry about losing their intellectual property to the big guys.

Federal courts have the expertise and experience to handle complicated patent suits; state courts do not. Such suits are about interstate commerce, not intrastate disputes. The Patent Act of 1790 deliberately put the federal government, not the states, at the center of intellectual property management. That precedent should stand.

* A San Diego company called SGB is exciting the biofuels world through its success in modifying a drought-resistant species of plants – jatropha – to produce high-quality seed oil that can be turned into low-carbon jet or diesel fuel.

The buzz may well be justified, given the plant's natural hardiness and genetic breakthroughs that promise the production of commercial qualities of oil. However, another high-flying firm much closer to home is also on the flight path for plant-based jet fuels.

Madison-based Virent Energy is using the carbohydrate portion of plants, such as corn stover, to produce test quantities of two jet fuels. Both Virent products are considered identical to petroleum-based fuels because of their freezing points, boiling points and thermal stability. That means they can be safely "dropped in" to the existing refinery infrastructure. Oil from jatropha plants must be further refined before it can be used as fuel.

Which process is better? Investment dollars and market acceptance will tell, perhaps more so than technology. However, the prospect of biofuels competing with conventional fossil fuels may mean there's room for both in the aviation industry.

Just following up…

* Former Gov. Tommy Thompson's transformation from politician to businessman was the subject of a December 2013 column. Through Thompson Holdings, he has invested in or is advising about 30 companies, mostly in health care technology but largely outside Wisconsin. Thompson will talk about his plans to get more involved in Wisconsin companies at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Wauwatosa. Learn more or sign up to attend at http://www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

* Another December 2013 column focused on Boeing's search for a place to build the 777x jetliner, and how Wisconsin's siting bid in Milwaukee drew upon the state's deep but little-known aerospace expertise. As many observers predicted, unionized Boeing workers grudgingly accepted the company's contract offer and the 777x plant will stay in the Seattle area. Wisconsin officials expected that might happen, too, so the bid didn't contain hard-and-fast numbers about tax incentives and other financial lures. That's just as well. There's no advantage in tipping the state's hand to the next suitor.

* Reports on Wisconsin's venture capital rankings vary depending on how the numbers are reported, but two recent reports speak to the continuing strength of the state's angel investors. Angels often invest in startups as individuals or through networks, long before venture capitalists enter the picture. The latest Halo Report by the Angel Capital Association identified Wisconsin Investment Partners in Madison as one of the nation's most active angel groups for the third quarter of 2013. Another report by Xconomy cited Wisconsin's Act 255 investor tax credits program as one of the nation's best. Since 2005, about $60 million in tax credits have generated nearly $250 million in private investments in 160 eligible Wisconsin companies.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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