You have an interesting personal backstory. AT&T, SBC, MIT. There are a lot of important initials in there. If you were going to describe your career trajectory, what’s the through-line?
A lot of initials. Word salad. The through-line really is that I am drawn to innovation and entrepreneurship. When you think about companies like AT&T or SBC — and I worked for IBM briefly, as well — maybe entrepreneurship doesn’t come to mind, but my path at these companies was to help them move into new markets and technologies and innovate. That, for me, is the through-line.
I started my career as an engineer. After going to graduate school, working on cutting-edge technologies for video and other compression technologies, I was exposed to a lot of different problems and open questions in the market. That’s what I loved about research and developing new products. You’re solving a problem by finding new approaches or by building connections between technologies in a new way. I’ve always been drawn to solving problems, and doing something new.
When I went to IBM, I was part of a team focused on a new approach to applied research and new product development. That was very appealing to me. I went to AT&T and SBC for that very same reason: to work on brand-new businesses. Whether it was technology or the strategic aspects of technology development and selection, or defining and guiding the implementation of an overall business strategy. That’s what I thrive on.
At SBC and AT&T I had a lot of roles. One of the later roles was leading corporate strategy. In that role I was heavily involved in our strategy for broadband and data networking, which were new areas for the company outside the core business and helped to reshape the business as a whole. Later, I was involved in harnessing and deploying the company’s IP. As a company we had a great deal of investment in solving technical problems in various aspects of our business and applying those innovations to new markets. This investment resulted in IP in the form of patents, know-how, processes, and brands. So, I was tasked with defining the strategy and then launching and forming the IP business unit for SBC, and then again later when we acquired AT&T, integrating the operations into a single, cohesive global operation.
At the time I found it kind of novel. I approached it not as oh, this is a support function of the business — a cost center, I thought of it as this is an asset, we’re investing in it, and as with any asset it has value. How can we best deliver a return on that investment and deploy the technology to the market because we’re solving problems before others do? That was why we named the business unit Knowledge Ventures. It was meant to convey that we were a venture-focused transactional arm around knowledge and innovation.
The experiment worked. We had great captive IP at AT&T. And we did very well for the business. And, I saw firsthand how the value of IP and how enabling wider reach in the market through licensing and other transactions benefits the market and society. But nobody corners the market on innovation. It was an opportunity, in my mind, to go out and create a business that could put together the best IP, assist owners in widening market reach for their innovations, and bring those innovations to market.
“In any negotiation you have two people or two groups, hopefully trying to get to the same place. But each side has constraints.”
As your career progressed, what was your first real exposure to transactional work and negotiation?
When I was in graduate school. MIT was working on submissions to standards bodies. So, while I was tangentially involved as part of a larger team, I gained an understanding of the importance of standards bodies and the submission process for solutions for the standard. I saw the process of how standards committees meet and negotiate with the goal of ensuring that standard is the best technology for an industry. That was probably one of my first exposures, albeit not as the negotiator, but as the person watching it.
One of my first experiences in negotiating directly came when I was at SBC and I was involved in a very large project around leading-edge digital video deployments. Negotiating with vendors on schedule, on price, on requirements; negotiating internally about timing, capabilities, and what the product ought to do, was all part of the effort.
Ultimately, in any negotiation you have two people or two groups, hopefully trying to get to the same place. But each side has constraints. Each side has needs and wants that have to be resolved in that deal. Finding a path forward on areas of common ground is necessary to progress.
What were the big lessons that you learned from mentors?
One, having clarity and being well-prepared for discussion. That just means knowing what it is you’re there to try to do. That’s fundamental. Knowing enough about your side’s perspective, but also the other side’s. And trying to keep in mind that a negotiation is a two-way street.
Sometimes these negotiations are very complex. Whether it’s negotiating the selection of a technology, the coordination of multiple parties, anything. You have to take time to learn what those crosscurrents are and what the dependencies might be so that you have a better sense of what everybody’s trying to get out of the transaction.
In a perfect world, everyone’s trying to get the best deal possible and arrive at fair terms. It’s not always that way. Any tips on how to reach that type of accord?
One challenge is that a lot of times the risk profile — in IP and otherwise — is what the transaction turns on. Making sure that people on both sides understand that risk profile is important. That’s hopefully somewhat observable. Given the same facts, people should come to similar conclusions.
There’s unfortunately a lot of opportunity for gamesmanship. So, the challenge is recognizing when that’s going on. Are these people really negotiating with you in earnest, or are they gaming the system? And, in our system, what does that mean?
The reality is the same patents get challenged over and over and over. It’s not the bad patents that are getting extinguished and challenged, but the best ones facing multiple attacks. It’s just taking multiple bites at the apple for a system that’s not perfect. You also have to take into consideration not just what the other side is saying, but what their actions are telling you.
Any advice for reaching an equitable deal efficiently?
Starting from the premise that the IP is high quality, first there ought to be a willingness to engage on both sides. Typically, that should be some relatively straightforward framework for sharing information that you’re not necessarily going to use against the other side, because that’s disingenuous. There ought to be an easy way to get to that point.
Then, as someone who represents the IP, being willing to talk about it and say, “Here’s why we think this is important, this is valuable,” and the other side being candid about what the products do and don’t do. It’s the simplest of things: How many of your products do you sell? Transparency and information between the parties is important. There’s a bit of relationship-building that has to go on.
Investing in that relationship is worthwhile. Keeping the door open is worthwhile. From my perspective — being a businessperson, not an attorney by trade — people could come to the table and have a more productive conversation. Sometimes we see that door just never open because parties get mired in avoidance tactics.
What’s the most complicated or challenging deal you’ve worked on?
Every deal is complicated. I think less about worrying about complexity and more about creativity. Those are the deals that stand out in my mind as interesting. Where you have a party that perhaps needs certain IP because they want to enter the market with a new capability or product and you have IP that could help accelerate or improve their approach, so you try to find a way to provide access and permission to them under some sort of license.
At the same time, I’ve been part of deals where as a large company, we had developed important technology and IP ahead of the market, but it was outside our core business. Here, finding a strategic partner to spin out the IP and continue development and hardening of the technology allowed the company to not only have use of the technology and IP in house, but to be a part of the success of bringing the solution to the broader market. Those are interesting because they are both what you have today and what you’re going to have tomorrow.
Figuring out a path when you’re not really sure where you’re going to end up, where the product is going to end up, how the IP could be used in new ways, is interesting and creative. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some like that.
“I always approach new problems —whether technical, business, or the combination — with optimism that a solution can be found.”
How important is the personality or temperament of the person on the other side of the table?
With any transaction business, personality or temperament matters. It’s not a question of one way being good or bad. It’s understanding that some people are very persuaded by facts and details. That they want to get all the way into the nooks and crannies of something. Others are persuaded by the bigger picture and how the relationship of the parties will develop or potentially change the market position of one or both. Being able to speak to those varied perspectives and interests helps the parties understand each other’s needs and wants better and potentially arrive at a deal.
Understanding how to communicate with the other side is extremely important. It goes back to how do you build that rapport? It’s unfortunate if you start out adversarially because it takes longer to see opportunities to build strategic value for both sides. At the end of the day, the deal has to work for both sides.
What has made you good at what you do?
I’ve always been drawn to new challenges and opportunities to learn. IP is the latest in those interests, but the common thread with my earlier experiences is the focus on innovation and problem-solving, both in the technology itself and in the ways to provide business solutions for market introduction and use. I’m drawn to learning new things and solving new problems. That seems to be the common link and it’s what makes the work interesting and challenging. And, I love a good challenge.
Another aspect is the optimism I face problems with. I always approach new problems — whether technical, business, or the combination — with optimism that a solution can be found. IP is a tough business and the challenges come from all sides, whether it’s policy swings to lessen protections and value, a pandemic that disrupts schedules and resolutions, or intransigent parties and the games they play rather than coming to the table in good faith. I remain optimistic that there will be a path forward to any deal or problem.
Finally, my parents instilled in me a resilience that helps me to persevere and work through things with the belief that I can. My parents came to the US with very little, to pursue graduate engineering studies, and over the years worked in areas from circuit board automation to large software system architectures to robotics to genomics, solving new problems as they arose. They encouraged me to be inquisitive and to work on hard problems. That made me feel there are no limits.
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