Jack Ellis

Back in July 2015, IAM reported on a deal which saw Korean smartphone maker Pantech bought out of bankruptcy by a local consortium. As we noted at the time, the company’s supposedly high-value trove of patents played a big role in securing the rescue package – and it now appears that those patents may be changing hands in anticipation of some kind of value creation programme.  

Since October last year, at least 230 US patents and applications have been transferred in multiple assignments from Pantech to an entity named Goldpeak Innovations Inc, according to USPTO records. Goldpeak’s given address locates it in the Guro district of Seoul.

Goldpeak doesn't appear to have moved any of these patents on to third parties yet, though early last week it did assign one granted patent and two applications back to Pantech (one of the latter was filed as recently as January this year). These three assets were subsequently assigned to South Korea’s sovereign patent fund (SPF) operator, Intellectual Discovery, later in the week.

Pantech had previously assigned an issued US patent and pending application to Intellectual Discovery in November last year. Again, the latter of these was filed after Pantech’s buyout from bankruptcy. And in February, Pantech assigned a portfolio containing two US assets to a trustee of funds set up by Idea Bridge Asset Management – a subsidiary of Intellectual Discovery that provides IP-backed financings.

It is not too surprising to see that the SPF now has a hand in managing the resurrected Pantech’s patents. While the smartphone company was in court receivership, it had apparently attracted takeover interest from China’s ZTE, India’s Micromax and a US investment consortium, among others. However, all of these potential bidders were reportedly put off the scent due to pressure from the South Korean government and domestic industry to keep Pantech’s IP in local ownership; this after several negative experiences of expatriated technology coming back to haunt Korean firms in the form of business downsizings and patent assertions. Assuming that there is value to be tapped from Pantech’s portfolio – and with those political concerns in mind – public-private SPF Intellectual Discovery would be the obvious choice to do the job.

However, it has been a tumultuous time at Intellectual Discovery of late. Former CEO Kwang Jun Kim – who abruptly departed from the role last October – had spoken of a budgeting crisis at the organisation. He had also hinted that full privatisation was on the cards, suggesting it was the only way the SPF could escape the limitations that came with being a public sector body. Intellectual Discovery’s $9 million sale of dozens of patents to US NPE Document Security Systems – some of which have subsequently been asserted against Korean chipmaker Seoul Semiconductor, and in which the SPF is due a share of licensing revenues – looked like it may be one of the first signs of it adopting this new, more independent strategy.  

But naturally, the idea of part-publicly funded Intellectual Discovery profiting from patents that are being asserted against members of Korean industry – or their customers – will not go down too well back home. If Intellectual Discovery really does have a say in what happens next with Pantech’s patents – and they too end up in the hands of what many Korean companies would consider as ‘trolls’ – then we can expect plenty of challenging questions being asked not just of the SPF and its funding, but also of the Korean government’s handling of domestically developed technology assets in general.