Jack Ellis

A high volume of M&A coupled with a major growth in patent filings in the smart-grid sector suggests that it has the potential to be a major area of IP litigation and transactional activity in the near future, according to analysis from Greentech Media.

Like a traditional grid, a ‘smart grid’ is a network for delivering electricity from suppliers to consumers. What makes it ‘smart’ is the incorporation of information and communications technology to gather data from the grid and act upon it, allowing for the whole infrastructure to be more efficient and sustainable. As such, patented technologies that can be considered as relevant to the sector are fairly disparate and cover an array of different areas, including telecommunications, software, sensors, charging systems for electric vehicles and smart meters.   

Companies developing such technologies have been involved in M&A deals worth $30 billion over the past two years, with the need to acquire new intellectual property being the major driving factor, Greentech Media reports. This has been matched by significant growth in worldwide filings of patents covering smart-grid-related technologies, as indicated by the findings of a study published last year by patent search and analytics firm Relecura. According to this, there were about 400 published applications across all jurisdictions in 1993; by mid-2010, this had risen to almost 6,700.

Among its findings, Relecura lists the entities that hold the largest global portfolios of smart-grid-related patents. Japanese companies are particularly conspicuous, but the overall leader with 1,085 patent assets is Switzerland-based ABB – which appointed Bruce Schelkopf, formerly of Ingersoll Rand and IBM, as its new chief IP officer last month. ABB is followed by General Electric, Panasonic, Siemens and Toshiba. The top 15 are listed below:

Patent owner Number of smart-grid patent assets (2013)
ABB 1,085
General Electric 923
Panasonic 882
Siemens 526
Toshiba 406
LG Electronics 390
Itron 280
Sumitomo Electric Industries 188
Eaton 150
Current Technologies 146
Korea Electric Power 144
Silver Spring Networks 127
Elster Electricity 126
Honeywell International 124
Alcatel-Lucent 118


Beyond 15th-placed Alcatel-Lucent - which recently recruited former Kodak president Laura Quatela to spearhead its renewed patent monetisation efforts - other noteworthy entrants on the full list are automotive players Honda, Toyota and Ford in 22nd place with 76 assets, 23rd (75) and 26th (69), respectively; and Intellectual Ventures-affiliated Searete LLC, in at 39 with 38 smart-grid patents.

For each of the technology sub-categories it analyses, the Relecura report attempts to identify the most likely potential licensees, as well as the most likely acquisition targets, either in terms of outright whole-company acquisition or patent-only purchases. That is too much information to list here, but you can view it in the original report and see what you think.

Of course, any stab at predicting future licence deals and patent purchases is going to be far from precise. But what the report’s authors have recognised is that the smart-grid industry is a fertile area for such transactions to take place. This particular corner of greentech may well be another in which we can expect to see both operating companies and NPEs becoming much more active in terms of IP filings, acquisitions and monetisation – which means that the move to ABB should be an exciting one for Schelkopf!