GE gets on the right side of the patent fight with Quirky partnership

By Erin Griffith , written on April 10, 2013

From The News Desk

By partnering with crowdsourced inventions startup Quirky, GE has taken a stand on the so-called patent wars.

"They're using them for good, not evil," Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman told me at the company's offices today. He's referring to GE's agreement to make thousands of its patents available to Quirky's community of inventors. Those inventors can use the patents as they develop new consumer products for Quirky, or for anyone. The Quirky/GE partnership also includes the development of co-branded products under a line called "Wink: Instantly Connected." But more meaningful to the startup community and the future of patents is the fact that one of the largest companies in the world is sharing -- not hoarding -- theirs.

The idea is that GE holds many valuable patents for narrow use cases, such as medical devices or aerospace components, that might have a use in consumer electronics. Why not let a thriving community of 260,000 inventors have access to these? GE and Quirky described their partnership as bringing GE's technology, typically used to make "really big things," to the makers of Quirky's "everyday things." Example patents shared by GE include those related to holographic storage technology, which are used for archiving data. There are patents related to barrier coating technology, which is used to make thinner, lighter, protected-from-the-elements electronic devices, and asset tracking technology, which GE uses to monitor locations of things like commercial vehicles.

GE won't be the only company sharing patents on the platform. Quirky will likely share some of its own patents, Kaufman says, and the hope is that more companies will see the good will in GE's move and join in. The most exciting opportunity in patent-sharing, Kaufman says, is related to universities, which sit on thousands of patents that very few people get to use. In this way, Quirky is attempting to make patents into a constructive thing, rather than a destructive one.

Most innovation-friendly companies believe patent law is broken. Big, established companies can sue startups over old, vaguely worded patents that are stretched to include just about anything. The best example I can think of is Comscore's lawsuit against Moat, AdSafe, and DoubleVerify, over whether any company that's not Comscore can monitor ad viewing online. It's drawn big, insecure tech companies into a bit of a patent arms race, where they stockpile these things defensively in case they're attacked. (Remember when Yahoo, owner of 3,000 patents, sued Facebook, owner of 120?) Worse yet are the patent troll shell companies which don't even make anything; they just own patents and sue startups. Look no further than Rackspace's battles with shell company Parallel Iron for a recent example of this.

Quirky's community has generated more than 200 consumer inventions for the company, which manufactures and sells them. The company has quietly grown into a New York powerhouse out of warehouse loft full of 3D printers, prototyping labs and various other mad scientist stuff on the far West side of Chelsea. Last year the company raised $68 million from Andreessen Horowitz to expand more product lines, bringing the company's total funds raised to $91.3 million. Kaufman, who is 24, sold his first invention, the Mophie iPhone charger, to OEM company called mStation Corp. in 2007.

With Quirky, Kaufman has managed to convince people to share the thing they're most inclined to hoard -- their ideas. He explained to me that yes, some people fear their idea will be stolen if they share it on Quirky. But they quickly realize the feedback, encouragement, or perhaps even discouragement, that they get on Quirky is far more valuable than the tiny risk it could be stolen. And bonus -- if Quirky chooses to make and sell an invention, the inventor no longer has to think about prototyping, manufacturing, distributing and marketing their invention. The hope is that now, with thousands of patents available and the hope that universities, companies and inventors will add thousands more, inventing something cool is that much easier.

[Image via Quirky]