Success often means anticipating what’s coming -- not just connecting the available dots, but accurately predicting where they will lead next.

By visually identifying hot spots for innovation as well as connections between industries, patent maps -- graphical models that provide visual representation of the areas in which companies are protecting intellectual property -- can help your business stay one step ahead of the curve.

Joseph Hadzima is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., and president of IPVision Inc., a company that provides intellectual property analysis systems and services. The company also has developed its own system for mapping patents.

“We take patent citations and map them visually, which allows us to see the relationships between a particular patent and the prior patents it cites," he says. "When you draw up a map for a number of patents, you start to see patterns and trends that can help us with technology commercialization.”

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Hadzima frequently creates patent maps for small businesses that have received grants from the Small Business Innovation Research, a federal program that funds technology based startups. “It’s an easy way for them to identify who is already in the competitive space -- potential partners, customers, perhaps a company that would want to acquire their business. Or is the area full of competitors?” Hadzima says. “A systematic walk through these patent maps helps teams refine their whole commercialization strategy and market entry strategy."

While information about most US patents is public and available online, the data can be incomprehensible for those without extensive technological knowledge. “Patent mapping allows us to take information that is locked in dense documents, and present it in a way where people can start seeing and talking about relationships,” Hadzima says. “These visualizations unlock a lot of previously unavailable information.”

Amy Rae, a principal at Vanedge Capital, a venture capital fund based in Vancouver, Canada that focuses on investments in interactive entertainment and digital media businesses, likes patent maps for this very reason. She’s often tasked with performing due diligence on companies Vanedge is seriously considering investing in but she doesn't have a technical background.

Instead of wading through block after block of cryptic, highly technical text, Rae is able to get an overview of a company’s patent portfolio in an intuitive visual format, which gives her a good idea of how business see itself: “Where do they think their knowledge base is? Where do they think their strengths lie, and how do they think about growing their business?”

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Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of a well-drawn patent map is its predictive potential. It's possible to play detective, using intellectual property filings to anticipate how a particular company plans to diversify or predict an overarching trend before it breaks. For example, when mapping patents from 2001 to 2006, Jan Youtie, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noticed that Samsung had noticeably more patents in the biomedical realm than other companies with similar portfolios. 

“That made me to wonder: what are they up to?” she says. (In 2011, Samsung announced plans to move into the biomedical business, producing drugs for cancer and arthritis patients at a plant in Seoul).

Mobile device companies can especially benefit from using patent maps, Hadzima says, but so can venture capital firms, investment banks and businesses in the hardware, software, materials and biotech space.

At IPVision’s website, see-the-forest.com, users can create individual patent landscape maps, which show the citation references to and from a single patent), as well as patent interconnection maps for up to 100 patents.The ability to create more complex maps, along with access to additional analytic tools, is available for a $250 per month subscription fee. Larger projects can cost anywhere up to $100,000.

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