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Part I of II inventor series

Despite today’s paucity of pure inventor careers, Dr. Shmuel Ur has managed to dedicate his entire professional life to high profile, prolific inventing. With a CV extending from Master Inventor at IBM to innovation consultancy founder and professor, Dr. Ur has achieved unique inventive success.

Shmuel Ur, PhD | Brainstorm Session

Some of the 20 inventors, whose patent experience spans from zero (most of them) to over 100 (one of them), who attended Dr. Shmuel Ur’s first bi-monthly inventor workshop in February. Workshop “fee” was a donation of 1,000 sheckels (about $300) to a charity of the inventor’s choice. Admission was by invitation.

But Dr. Ur is also happy to share the hard lessons he’s learned along the way. He’s educating aspiring inventors on how to improve their inventions and avoid patenting pitfalls in workshops and courses, like a five-day course scheduled in Bergen, Norway June 4 – 8 in which he will ultimately help shop invention ideas generated from class brainstorming sessions.

The perils of patenting

Dr. Ur’s first patented invention contained a particularly bruising lesson. In 1993, while completing his PhD, Dr. Ur patented a system for transcribing invisible information signatures onto the printed page via dot matrix printing. That innovation contained wide commercial applications worth millions. It helped propel him along the track to Master Inventor at IBM, where he would ultimately obtain 70 patents and train five other IBM Master Inventors.

But while the idea was a home run, the patent itself was almost worthless.

“My first patent was worth $100 million but it earned about $200 thousand due to mistakes in the way it was written, of which I got very little because I also made commercial mistakes in my ownership contracts,” explained Dr. Ur matter-of-factly. He isn’t bent out of shape about the experience, largely because so many other inventors have persevered through similar cautionary tales. He estimates three-quarters of patents are too poorly written to be executable in court. It’s a systemic flaw due to patenting’s standard procedure of:

  1. Inventor brings cherished idea to patent attorney.
  2. Patent attorney collects $10,000 fee to write patent and fight with patent office.
  3. Patent is successfully filed! Inventor and patent attorney walk away happy! Job well done! (cue foreboding music…)
  4. The other shoe drops in the courtroom. Inventor engages a new attorney to prosecute for patent infringement on his idea and realizes, too late, the patent is too broad or otherwise too poorly written to protect the invention against the many possible attacks.
  5. Face palm.
  6. Learn lesson.
  7. Keep inventing.
Shmuel Ur, PhD | Xinova Inventor

Shmuel on a hike in Israel

An institutionalized error

“The mistake is institutionalized because the same people who write the patents themselves do not execute them,” Dr. Ur said. “It’s the equivalent of writing a computer program and having a compiler verify that it’s a legal program, without executing it. . . The same issue would happen if an architect wrote the plans for my house but never came to look at it years down the road to see if there’s been any mistakes that can be corrected, so the same mistakes are made over and over again.”

Patent lawyers are paid to get a patent approved by the patent office. That’s it. They do this well as per their training, collect their fee, and move on. But a patent’s value is completely tied to its effectiveness at protecting the invention in court; and mere approval does not ensure such effectiveness. Litigation is then left to a different attorney, with no feedback pathway to the patent attorney to improve his approach. Everything is compartmentalized, placing the onus on the inventor to craft a water-tight patent.

And that’s when patenting is on the up and up.

“Inventors are vulnerable to scams,” warned Dr. Ur. “Many people make a lot of money off inventors because they believe they have a billion-dollar idea.

“So, the inventor eagerly forks over $10,000, or sometimes much more, to file a patent with an attorney who does not even ask them how they plan to make money off the patent, essential knowledge for writing it well. Then the inventor spends another $20,000 to prototype the idea, and more to develop it further, write a business plan, etc… Next thing the inventor knows, he is $70,000 in the hole and stuck with an idea he realizes probably won’t return anything.”

The inventor’s journey

Shmuel Ur, Phd | Dancing with his daughter

Video of Shmuel dancing tango with his daughter

Dr. Ur doesn’t just dwell on the dark side of his profession with students, of course. From brainstorming and ideation to patenting and commercialization, inventing represents a deeply rewarding journey once the inventor gains his or her footing. Dr. Ur draws from his unique experience to give inventors tools to navigate the still largely unmarked path of professional inventing. He walks that path with them, literally and figuratively, and encourages his inventors to have fun while doing it.

When Dr. Ur isn’t inventing, he enjoys hiking and dancing. Three inventors in his workshop were met while on a multi-week hike in Israel organized yearly to commemorate fallen soldiers. Last year alone, he hiked 20 days in Finnish Lapland and another week in Scotland, in addition to several weeks throughout Israel.

Several other inventors invited to his workshop he met while dancing tango. Dancing gives his active mind a much-needed opportunity to rest as he endeavors to be entirely in the moment. That doesn’t come naturally to an ideas-person like Dr. Ur. His hobby has actually inspired a number of inventions related to dancing.  For example, he applied the principle underlying the way one leads in Tango to a method for assisting blind people to walk. 

“I try not to invent when dancing, to be totally focused on the music and my partner, but I am not very good at it. Learning to stay in the moment is very hard for me as I am always thinking… I once even took a three-day tango/meditation workshop, but what I learned was that staying in the moment takes lots of practice.  As Tango is a hobby, one I am not great at but I really enjoy, I did not yet have the motivation to spend a lot of work to learn how not to think, how to stay in the moment.”

Read Part II

Connect with Shmuel on the Xinova Inventor Network


Dr Shmuel Ur – Bio

Dr. Shmuel Ur (ur-innovation.com) was a research scientist in the IBM research lab in Haifa, Israel for 16 years, where he held the title of IBM Master Inventor. Later, he became an independent inventor (working with the predecessor to Xinova and start-ups). Shmuel taught software testing in the Technion and Haifa University. Shmuel taught, both inside and outside IBM, various software engineering disciplines, giving one-day to one-week courses on the topics of coverage, code review, and testing and developing concurrent software. Shmuel has also consulted with banks and companies as to how to improve their software development process.

Shmuel received his Ph.D. in Algorithms Optimization and Combinatorics in 1994 in Carnegie Mellon University under Michael Trick and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon. He received his Bs.C. and Ms.C. from the Technion in Israel. Shmuel has published in the fields of hardware testing, artificial intelligence, algorithms, software testing and testing of multi-threaded programs. He founded and chaired PADTAD, a workshop on testing multi-threaded applications and the Haifa Verification Conference and was on program committees of many conferences. Shmuel has more than 60 professional publications, more than 95 granted patents, more than 250 patent applications, has sold more than 50 ideas, invented more than 100 patents for customers, and has given numerous talks and tutorials.

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