Why is it so hard to keep up with threats to your competitiveness?

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Ben Bahavar, Ph.D., Jeffrey Magee, BSME, MBA

Originally Published August 23, 2021

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Threats to your business: What keeps you up at night?

  • Worry that a competitor will announce a product that will take away your market share.
  • An unknown start-up introducing a revolutionary new product that completely replaces your most productive product line.
  • Actions of a legislative or regulatory body that will force you to reformulate a product to meet new regulatory requirements in your most valued markets like California or the EU.
  • A significant customer requires their suppliers to certify their carbon, water and waste management practices and will drop any supplier who doesn’t comply.
  • A key single-source supplier is in discussion with and may be acquired by your competition or is ready to declare bankruptcy.

Staying on top of your industry sometimes feels like you are drinking water from a fire hose. It is a Herculean task to keep up with all the information that is out there.

And. What. If. You. Miss. Something.

The internet has changed how information is reported, transmitted, and captured. It is now easier than ever to get information. But at what cost? A Google or Bing search of your competitors results in many millions of hits. The algorithms used and how Google/Bing organize these results are mysteries that few understand outside of these companies. Such an internet search does not readily provide you with the critical information YOU need to know for your company. Do you want to task one of your engineers or scientists to search for this information? That pulls them away from their regular job. Though, who doesn’t like an excuse to surf the web? And, do they know how to do a proper technical, competitor, market, regulatory search?

Developing a targeted search strategy requires training as well as experience. Many people can search, but finding the information you are looking for without missing key elements requires expertise that takes time to develop. It seems deceptively straightforward if you follow these steps (found on the internet with a simple Google search):

  1. Determine a clear and focused question
  2. Describe the articles that can answer the question
  3. Decide which key concepts address the different elements of the question
  4. Decide which elements should be used for the best results
  5. Choose an appropriate database and interface to start with
  6. Document the search process in a text document
  7. Identify appropriate index terms in the thesaurus of the first database
  8. Identify synonyms in the thesaurus
  9. Add variations in search terms
  10. Use database-appropriate syntax, with parentheses, Boolean operators, and field codes
  11. Optimize the search
  12. Evaluate the initial results
  13. Check for errors
  14. Translate to other databases
  15. Test and reiterate

The above list may describe how to search. But to search for the critical information you need is more of a challenge. As experienced search scientists, we have found the following challenges:

  • Search terms can be fickle. When searching the patent literature using a patent database and search platform, searching just keywords can be frustrating and miss many of the most relevant patents. Case-in-point: If we want to find a new cigarette formulation, searching for the keyword “cigarette” should pull up all of those patents, right? Hah! Not so fast. It is common practice not to use the term cigarette in the tobacco industry but instead refer to it as a “rod” or “stick.” Good luck trying to use the strategy: cigarette OR rod OR stick in Title/Abstract/Claims as you will also pull up patents for ice cream on a stick, stick toys for dogs, and a million other patents are dealing with all aspects of rods and sticks, making it impossible to sift through (so much for the items 7 & 8 above). A comprehensive patent search requires the searcher to understand all elements of a patent, including using IPC and CPC components to help in the search. If you are not familiar with these acronyms, your patent search will suffer big time. Keyword search strategies may not always provide what you are looking for. Seasoned patent platform searchers use additional techniques, such as citation searching, to tease out essential patents that stubbornly lay hidden from an exclusive keyword search. Overall, searching for patents is like playing the violin. The inexperienced searcher can squeak through the Flight of the Bumble Bee at 1/100th speed while an experienced searcher can make that violin (database) sing. Think about that when you send one of your young engineers to do a patent search for you on whatever platform you may hold a subscription.
  • Where to search is extremely important. If all you have access to is Google, Bing, or other similar platforms, you are searching a bazillion bits of data. Is it worth it for your company to subscribe to specific search platforms? There are a number of them out there. They cost a good bit of money for annual subscriptions. Depends. How often will your engineers and scientists need to access those assets? If it is not multiple times a day, it may not be worth the expense.
  • Additionally, these platforms require training. Can you afford to have your staff take the time to get the appropriate training? Especially if they may only use the platform a couple of times a year? Or do you plan on saddling one unlucky new engineer/scientist with the task and make them the point person for the company whether they have the innate aptitude or not? They are tagged just because they are young and raised on the internet (Tik-tok, Facebook, Instagram, etc).
  • Optimal use of the internet is also essential. There are a surprisingly large number of very specific databases that are not behind paywalls. The key is to know what they are and where to find them. We are not aware of any aggregator site that lists all of these high-value resources.
  • Searching for regulatory and legislative information is not something for the faint of heart. It requires a search analyst to understand how governments work, where the appropriate information is found, the jargon, and how best to understand it.

The bottom line is that its critical to find the right and timely information your company needs to:

  1. stay ahead of the competition,
  2. identify disruptive technologies before they disrupt your business,
  3. keep you out of hot water with your customers who are moving towards carbon-neutral, and expanding it to include their supply chain,
  4. not have a disruption in your supply chain if a major supplier is bought out by your competition or bites the dust due to COVID, and finally, heaven forbid
  5. avoid missing a critical regulation that either propels you into consumer activist lawsuits or bounces you out of key markets (like the EU or CA).

What is the true cost of missing must-see prior art gems when a company is faced with a decision whether or not to file a patent? You can task your minions to do this and keep your fingers crossed that they will find all of the information important to your company using Google or Bing. You can hire a company with unknown levels of expertise and/or access to a proper set of search tools. Whether they are experienced in your area of interest may be unknown.

If you have been following the application of artificial intelligence (AI), you know it is a hot technology being applied to all fields from reducing the risk of banks evaluating mortgage applications to improving scientific discovery and, not surprisingly, spilling into the search databases field, which is great. It is essential to bear in mind that AI is simply a tool that could help the seasoned engineer/scientist conduct a more efficient search, but a tool cannot inspire an actionable insight to help maintain competitiveness. As always, garbage in, garbage out. Although improvements in tools could reduce the cost of prior art search, its value relies heavily on the analysts’ knowledge and professional opinion.

You can look to Nerac, a trusted resource. On average, our analysts individually have at least a decade of experience in providing timely, relevant, and critical information to our clients for the last 60+ years. Check out their resumes online here.

To help you with what keeps you up at night, our analyst team can develop strategies that hit one, two, or all five prongs of your nightmare (competitors, disruptive technologies, regulatory hurdles, potential customer requirements, and supply chain issues). We can provide monthly, or quarterly updates in a spreadsheet format that is easily scanned by you and your team (as the most important are highlighted). These spreadsheets are easily searched later on when an issue comes up or a new idea is brought forward to be developed that needs a background search.

Let Nerac help you sleep better and help your company do what it does best. If you would like to receive a sample of our work or learn about our approach to a research topic related to your own company’s interests, please contact us here.

About the Analysts

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

Ben Bahavar, Ph.D.

Ben Bahavar, Ph.D., advises companies focused on stepping out to adjacent markets where they could apply their core technologies in new ways. He brings particular insight by synthesizing information from technology evaluations (patent and non-patent), competitive intelligence, and market elements. 

Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, Clarkson University
  • M.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Maine
  • B.S., Chemistry, SUNY at Stony Brook

Jeffrey Magee, BSME & MBA

Jeffrey Magee, BSME & MBA, has 20 years of industry experience in the energy sector. To help guide company IP strategy and R&D spend – for both the planned and the ad hoc innovations typical throughout the product life cycle – he helps clients identify, secure and expand their intellectual property assets while defining market niches using engineering and business metrics.

Academic Credentials

  • B.S., Mechanical Engineering, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Masters in Business Administration, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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