When Ellen Kullman became chief executive of EI du Pont de Nemours and Company (also known as DuPont) in early 2009, she did so with a clear vision for future expansion, identifying several ‘mega trends’ on which DuPont’s business was to concentrate moving forward. For example, as far as its agriculture and nutrition business was concerned, a key focus was on the impact of a growing world population on current resources.
For Mike Walker, vice president, assistant general counsel and chief intellectual property (IP) counsel at DuPont Legal, this clear direction is not just inspiring, but also gives him and his team key targets when it comes to supporting and protecting innovation. ‘We know that population growth will severely challenge societies and economies if we don’t look to innovate now to offer some solutions. What DuPont has done is say: “There are seven billion people in the world already. What are their needs now and what will they be in the future?”,’ Walker explains. ‘By identifying those needs, we can start to tailor our business and IP department accordingly.’
DuPont is concentrating on three global challenges, or mega trends. ‘The first,’ Walker says, ‘is to ensure adequate food and resources for this growing population. But, secondly, we’re also concentrating on technology that will enable society to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. And lastly, we are using our science and technology to ensure people and the environment are safe and well protected.’
Walker emphasises that addressing global challenges has always been a major focus for innovation at DuPont, and goes some way to explain the company’s success and longevity. Due to celebrate its 210th anniversary in 2012, the company has a long and illustrious history that stretches back to 1802, when the company was established to produce gunpowder for the US military. From those roots, DuPont has grown into the world’s third-largest chemical company, employing 67,000 people worldwide, and producing a diverse array of products in the fields of electronic and communication technologies, coatings and performance materials (such as Kevlar®), and agriculture and nutrition, among others.
Innovation at its core
Having been with the company for 21 years, Walker says that, for an IP professional, working in an organisation such as DuPont is something of a holy grail: ‘There’s nothing more rewarding than to work in a company so focused on innovation,’ he enthuses.
But, like the company itself, Walker is conscious that the IP department needs to evolve with the times if it’s going to support the future growth and direction of the company. That may go some way to explain why DuPont Legal’s IP department is currently undertaking the latest in a series of reviews of processes and systems under Walker’s direction.
Much of the current work has been designed to ensure that the IP department’s strategy reflects that of the wider business – for example, the mega trends identified by Kullman. ‘Ultimately, the most important role of a chief IP counsel is to build an IP portfolio that gives its owner a corporate advantage over its competitors and a platform for future growth,’ says Walker. ‘But we can do that only by looking to the company’s future plans and supporting its research and development (R&D) efforts – and to do that we need to be right in the heart of the action.’
Walker explains that this includes organising DuPont Legal’s IP department so that its team of 150 patent attorneys and internal (in-house) agents are aligned with its business units, many of which are dispersed geographically to sit close to the relevant business units or R&D centres. They each report to an IP leader who, in turn, reports to Walker.
However, while the close alignment of the team to the specific R&D and business units can pay dividends when it comes to understanding and capturing innovation, over time it led to variations in patent practices and procedures. It was this that prompted the first of Walker’s major transformation projects.
Moving with the times
In the early 2000s, a review of the company’s patent estate showed that the legal department’s output in patent filings had been dropping since the 1990s, so a priority for Walker was to identify the cause and rectify it. ‘We wanted to know why, at a time when patents were becoming more important, the number of applications that we were filing was decreasing so rapidly,’ he says. Walker believes that the legal department’s adoption of Six Sigma principles has been vital.
The idea behind Six Sigma is that, by identifying ‘defects’ in a process, you can systematically figure out how to eliminate them and so get as close as possible to having no defects at all. Following this approach has enabled DuPont Legal to improve several individual processes at a more global and strategic level, as Walker explains: ‘It’s not sustainable to have different IP systems and processes operating in different parts of the company, so we worked to develop an IP Streamline project across the company that focused on productivity and used Six Sigma principles to improve the work flow from the creation of the invention to the extraction of value in IP terms.’
This also necessitated an evolution in the roles and responsibilities of Walker’s team of IP attorneys and internal patent agents. In particular, it has included training internal patent agents to take on more senior roles, or rather to absorb some of the higher-level tasks that might previously have been handled by attorneys. ‘That too has had a positive impact on productivity,’ says Walker. ‘By developing their skills through training and mentoring, we know that our internal patent agents can work to the highest level of their potential.’ All the patent agents in DuPont have their own docket with full responsibility to file and prosecute applications in their own name.
However, Walker emphasises that these aren’t changes that the IP department can incorporate on its own: ‘I really appreciated the strong support from the R&D department, as well as the efforts by our patent attorneys and internal agents to Make the transition of the internal agents into the legal department become a success,’ he says.
‘Our Streamline project really was transformative,’ adds Walker. ‘Whereas previously, individual business units might have applied Six Sigma to their own individual patent process work flows, we sought to harmonise the processes across the company instead, so, for example, the process for invention submissions is now the same whichever business unit you work with and wherever you are in the world.’
Walker says that the introduction of new enterprise IP software has also played a key role: ‘[CPA Global’s] Memotech has served as the backbone of this improvement and our intent to better connect our global IP processes,’ he says. ‘We quickly realised that, as much as we needed to improve our work flows, access to the relevant IP data and consistency in data capture was equally critical, and Memotech has helped us achieve that.’
All these elements have made for a successful transformation. Walker adds that, since 2001, ‘by realigning our processes to focus on productivity’, DuPont has more than doubled the number of patent applications it files.
A smoother system
A similar principle applies to what Walker refers to as ‘the new buzz word’: legal process management (LPM). He describes LPM as a ‘more disciplined way of looking at the work that needs to be done and a means of completing projects more effectively in light of both time and budget constraints’. He added that: ‘You have to be able to step back and look at how you’re working from a more strategic point of view.’
From an LPM perspective, this includes using Six Sigma principles to improve project management. ‘Traditionally, if you ask someone to run a project, then you expect them to face certain inherent delays or inefficiencies, due, for example, to conflicts over goals or confusion over timing or team members,’ says Walker. ‘The point of LPM is to organise projects more thoroughly to begin with, so you eliminate time wasting by being clear in advance on the task, deliverables or deadline.’
Walker agrees that this may sound simple in principle, but he emphasises that it can be difficult to implement: ‘DuPont’s 13 business units are located around the world, so, of course, practices and processes are always going to be slightly different,’ he says. ‘If the IP department is working in 13 different ways, there are clearly going to be several inefficiencies and inconsistencies. But, whereas previously we might just have accepted that as read, we now recognise not only that we should, but also that we can do something about it.
‘Productivity is always a key challenge,’ adds Walker, ‘so my focus is on identifying inefficiencies and looking for ways to rectify them, particularly as IP practices and the business evolve.’ Walker identifies open innovation (or what he terms the ‘global collaboratory’) as a key driver: ‘DuPont’s goal is to solve the world’s problems, but we’re also aware that this isn’t something that one company can do on its own,’ he says. ‘We understand that we need to work with others, and, of course, that also necessitates changes in the way that we protect IP.
‘When I first started in the IP profession, people would ask me: “What is IP?”,’ continues Walker. ‘I don’t have to explain that any more, but I still need to be an advocate for IP protection and so, as the company evolves, my job is to be there and constantly ask: How do we protect that innovation? How do I make sure that our systems and processes are as efficient as they should be? And that’s always going to be a challenge.’
DUPONT IN BRIEF
Founded: In 1802, as an explosives company, supplying gunpowder to the US military.
2010 revenues: US$31.5bn.
Employees: 67,000 worldwide.
Scope: Operating in approximately 90 countries.
R&D: More than 100 research and development and customer service bases in 12 countries.
Chair of the board and chief executive officer: Ellen Kullman is the 19th executive to lead the company in more than 209 years of DuPont history. She was appointed on 1 January 2009 and became chair of the board in December of the same year.
Fortune 500: 84th-largest US industrial/service corporation.
Brands/trademarks: Includes the DuPont Oval and DuPont™; Pioneer® seeds; Teflon® films, fabric protectors, and dispersions; Corian® solid surfaces; Kevlar® high-strength fibres; and Tyvek® protective material.