One of an occasional series: Patented in Pittsburgh
An oblong, purple fruit — an eggplant or an aubergine, whichever you prefer — is part of the reason you aren’t dripping in sweat while sitting inside a Southwest airplane cabin tens of thousands of feet in the air. It’s also the inspiration for a new type of paint that will help autonomous cars “see” one another.
Those discoveries, both of which have been patented in the last three years, were made at PPG’s secretive Coatings Innovation Center in Allison Park, housed inside an industrial park in a suburban bubble.
The vast building is shielded behind two sets of motorized gates, cloistered by trees. It’s reflective, seemingly covered with panels of mirrors, and accented by retro red beams, reminiscent of a 1970s aesthetic.
Inside the Pittsburgh company’s flagship research and development lab — where 370 employees are buzzing around, creating coatings for cell phones, aerosol cans, bridges and more — the focus is on testing out ideas that will buy this 135-year-old company, which first began as a plate glass factory in the late 1800s, a home in the future.
Between 2005 and 2015, PPG was awarded 583 patents, the most in the Pittsburgh region, and certainly enough to warrant the structure PPG has crafted to protect its secrets until it has the force of a U.S. patent seal.
“The coatings business is pretty competitive,” explained Aditya Gottumukkala, intellectual asset manager and strategist for PPG. According to market research from Coatings World, a trade publication, the pigments market alone is expected to exceed $18 billion by 2025.
And it’s not just PPG that’s a player in this massive game of chess — trying to outmaneuver rivals. Data suggests that Pittsburgh is becoming a patent factory.
Over the last decade, the region’s research institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, have more than tripled their combined new patents — from 58 received in 2008 to 186 in 2017, according to research compiled by North Side-based seed investor Innovation Works.
A 2013 analysis of regional patent trends by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. noted that of 358 areas studied, Pittsburgh ranked 26th in patent production between 2007 and 2011 with 800 patents. San Jose, Calif., which ranked first, produced 9,237.
Pittsburgh’s patent production doesn’t come just thanks to deep-pocketed universities and corporations.
Tech workers at scrappy startups and even your next-door-neighbor in her garage are laboring over inventions that they hope are novel enough to win U.S. patent approval, and clever enough to commercialize.
Between 2005 and 2015, individually owned patents were the only category that beat out PPG, with 804 in total, according to data compiled by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
There’s risk in sharing the details of that eureka moment with the government — you’re showing the minutiae of your discovery to the world. But if the officials at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., deem your idea as unique, it can be a legal game changer.
Now the other side can see your most recent move, dissect it, consider the possibilities — but it’s too late for them to capitalize on what they learn from you. At least for the next 20 years.
The Steel City has long been a bastion of innovation.
Perhaps no company better exhibited this than the former Westinghouse Electric Corp., established in 1886 as a manufacturing firm by founder George Westinghouse.
Between 1865 and 1914, Westinghouse filed more than 145 patents, including his very first one, for a rotary steam engine. That one was never used, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, but it launched a long stream of invention.
Westinghouse achieved fame for his 1869 patent on pneumatic airbrakes for railroads, which would later be manufactured in Wilmerding — at an operation now part of the company known as Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies, or Wabtec.
That research and development occurred during the Industrial Revolution, the “golden age” of invention, exploding between the mid-19th century and lasting through the 1920s.
Though patenting tapered off significantly during the Great Depression, nationally, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, post-World War II innovation in information technology and electronics prospered.
During the 20th century alone, scientists and engineers at Westinghouse were granted more than 28,000 U.S. patents — the third most of any company during that period.
“Pittsburgh has its roots in more traditional, heavy industry,” explained John W. McIlvaine III, director and vice president for Downtown-based Webb law firm, which specializes in patent, trademark and copyright law. “Early in my practice, there was a lot of steel-related things such as steel making and steel processing equipment.”
Now, he said, patent activity in the mix at Webb is tech-heavy. Patents related to chemicals, biotechnology and medical devices are popular.
A history of research and innovation
Kurt Olson, a polymer chemist by training, has been working for PPG since 1981. In that time, his name has appeared on over 70 patents. He admits that with an air of nonchalance.
Coming up with ideas has always been part of his job, he said, even now that he’s taken on a management role as a research fellow.
“My job is to look for growth opportunities, essentially. A lot of times those growth opportunities might fall between business units or be something brand new that people aren’t familiar with,” Mr. Olson said.
When he identifies an area to pursue — like the reflective “eggplant coatings” — he’s helping set the agenda for PPG’s sizable research and development budget.
The company spent $474 million on R&D in the 2017 fiscal year alone. Some research results will turn out to be a fluke, others will be kept as trade secrets, but much of that budget ends up bolstering PPG’s patent portfolio.
“It’s big dollars and you want to be sure you’re spending them wisely,” Mr. Olson said.
PPG said it has not cut its research and development budget over the years, but it has sold off its flat-glass operations to Vitro, a Mexican glass producer.
That meant two things: That the current budget can focus on coatings, which comprise 98 percent of the business, and that PPG’s glass-related patents changed hands as part of the sale, as they are considered assets.
Patents offer a number of advantages. If PPG develops the right patents in an area that the company hopes to sell products in, Mr. Gottumukkala said, that portfolio of intellectual property can effectively block other competitors from entering a market.
A patent doesn’t create a monopoly, per se, but a company with patents in a lucrative industry can expect higher profit margins because it is the first entrant.
That helps counteract the hefty price tag that comes with pursuing the legal protections.
Over the course of one patent’s lifespan, each costs the company between $250,000 and $500,000, Mr. Gottumukkala said. And that’s just in legal fees. Years spent researching tack on even more costs.
He did not disclose how much PPG spends on patents in a given year, but he did note that, on average, the firm is issued between 60 and 80 patents per year.
In the Pittsburgh region, PPG’s 583 issued patents during the 2005-2015 period beat out runner-up Eaton Corp. The Cleveland-based power company with electrical offices in Moon was issued 355 patents during the same period across its North American staff, according to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
Pitt and CMU were issued 364 and 214 patents, respectively, over that decade.
“Not [every patent] turns into a new product that generates lots of revenues,” said Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works. “But the reverse is also true. If you’re not investing a lot into that area, you can bet your business will not be healthy in the long run.”
The two main types of patents
Here's what you need to know before filing.
About 90 percent fall under this category, which gives the creator full protection of an invention if it is a new process, machine, or manufacturing system.
• Costs range from $8,000 to $15,000.
• "Utility patents cover the function of an invention...that can mean an algorithm, a message or the function of a mechanism," according to Sandra Mau, CEO and founder of TrademarkVision, an Uptown-based startup using machine learning and computer vision to protect intellectual property.
These are less common than utility patents and generally easier to obtain because they do not have a function. Rather, they are a new design for an exisiting product.
• Costs range from $3,000 to $4,500.
• "Design protects the form of a car, not the function of a car," Ms. Mau said. "A Tesla, if you see it on the street, you know exactly what kind it is...it's something distinctive so you can differentiate yourself in the market."
Sources: Fox Rothschild, LLP; interview with Sandra Mau, CEO and founder of TrademarkVision
At a startup, you can expect to be asked about your patent portfolio during the capital-raising process, said Sarabeth Boak, co-founder and CEO of Stitchbridge, an Oakland-based software company that develops interactive, 360-degree mobile content.
Researchers at New York University and Harvard Business School posited in a March 2017 paper that for startups, obtaining a patent for the first time can boost the company’s chances of raising venture capital dollars by 47 percent.
On average, startups from the sample that were issued a patent saw 16 additional employees and $10.6 million in additional sales over the next five years of operation.
A 2016 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found companies that apply for patents have 35 times more growth potential than those that do not.
Although she’s looked into filing for intellectual property protection, Ms. Boak of Stitchbridge said that since her company is a small team of three and not hardware-focused, that hasn’t been a top priority.
By contrast, Alison Alvarez — CEO and co-founder of East Liberty-based BlastPoint, a software startup that makes big data accessible for non-experts — has filed five provisional patent applications since the company was founded in 2016.
A provisional application secures a filing date for the inventor for up to 12 months. At $2,500 to $5,000 on average, this cheaper option buys time to consider if the filer truly wants to pursue a permanent patent while temporarily protecting the inventor’s rights.
It also gives Ms. Alvarez the freedom to talk about her inventions in case studies or with clients without fear of another individual or company taking the concept to the patent office first.
“A minority of us seem to be filing patents [in the startup scene]. Part of it is having the funding to do it, because it’s not cheap,” Ms. Alvarez admitted. “It’s always a scary process. I know I avoided it for a while.”
The cost to maintain a patent
It's expensive to obtain a patent in the first place, but the fees don't stop there.
• If you want to keep dibs on your utility patent — the type that covers new processes, machines, or manufacturing systems — you have to pay maintenance fees to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office throughout the course of its 20-year lifespan. Design patents don't require maintenance fees.
• There are three times that you must pay a maintenance fee to keep your patent, and if you neglect to, your patent will expire and your invention will no longer be protected.
• The fee schedule is as follows:
|Years after patent is granted||Fee or large entity||Fee for small entity|
Despite PPG’s size, it’s hard to move into a new business area, Mr. Olson said. It’s not just the research. Waiting for a patent can take a long time.
The reflective “eggplant coating” the company designed, for example, took five years to develop and another four years to finally win a patent in 2015.
So the earlier that a company pursues a new area, develops a prototype and lands a patent, the greater the chances are in dominating the space. The only worry, then, is selling the thing.
“Of course, that all depends on how clear your crystal ball is,” Mr. Olson said.
In the case of PPG’s infrared reflective pigments, the first customer was knocking down the door before the idea was even developed, let alone patented.
Southwest Airlines had approached PPG with a problem.
Because the Dallas, Texas-based company had branded its planes with distinctive dark blue paint, it ended up spending extra cash on fuel and air conditioning due to excessive heat absorption. One reason that most airplanes are white is to reflect sunlight.
Stuart Hellring, the senior scientist at PPG, considered the eggplant while he was developing the new pigments.
Although dark colors absorb light, and therefore heat, the dark purple eggplants don’t cook themselves out beneath the sun’s rays.
“The trick is that eggplants have a white core that reflects most infrared radiation,” explained Mr. Gottumukkala. “The heat goes inside and is reflected back out.”
The same concept was applied to the airplane coatings. That brought down the exterior temperature of the planes by 25 degrees and the interior by 5 to 7 degrees.
In May, PPG was granted a patent to apply the same thinking to the paint on self-driving cars.
Although autonomous vehicles use a number of sensors to see the world around them — including cameras, radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) lasers — the cars struggle to identify dark-colored vehicles on the road, Mr. Gottumukkala explained.
Black cars, for example, absorb more infrared light than other colors. So when the infrared lasers on an autonomous vehicle ping out a signal, they don’t bounce back very well from the dark cars.
Patent in hand, PPG is confident that it’ll be hard for its competitors to enter that market for awhile. Because fully autonomous vehicles are still in development, though, the company’s new coatings are not yet commercial.
Just how much of a patent factory is PPG?
Enough that each month, the company hangs up the first page of each new patent awarded to employees in the building. It’s both to honor the inventors and to keep the spirit of inventorship high. One day in August, there were over a dozen displayed in a yellow hallway.
And there’s an even sweeter reward reserved for the inventors at PPG who are, in numbers at least, approaching the leagues of George Westinghouse in the patent game.
It’s been a tradition since 2013 to name conference rooms after people who have won more than 100 issued patents.
Just three or four employees have managed that feat across both of PPG’s Pittsburgh-area research centers, which combined, employ about 600 between labs in Allison Park and Monroeville.
Mr. Olson still has a number of patents coming down the pipeline and will likely get his name on a handful more. But at the mention of a future “Olson Conference Room,” his cheeks reddened.
“We’ll see,” he said, noting that he’s entering the twilight of his career. There’s only so much time left to land those last two dozen patents.
“It certainly won’t be my retirement decision,” he said with a laugh.
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