By Tom Still

MADISON – A little about a lot of things:

The Wisconsin Alumni
Research Foundation
isn’t the only organization accusing Apple Inc. of
infringing on a high-tech patent. A few days after WARF filed suit against the
technology giant, a Texas-based company did the same based on a different

WARF, the patenting and licensing arm for the UW-Madison,
filed suit Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Wisconsin’s Western District,
alleging Apple infringed on discoveries by four professors. At issue is whether
Apple’s A7 processor – used in the iPhone 5S, the iPad Air and the iPad mini
with Retina display – incorporates technology developed by Gurindar Sohi and
three others in 1998.

Hilltop Technology LLC filed suit against Apple a few days
later, accusing the company of infringing on Hilltop’s work in developing a “Capacitive
Type Touch Panel” used in touchscreen devices and modules.

With a reported $140 billion in cash on hand, Apple is a big
litigation target. Then again, Apple can outlast and outspend most challenges
to its intellectual property, whether it feels the allegations are fishing
expeditions or not.  An exception to that
legal war of attrition could be WARF, which has $2.4 billion in assets and has
proven in past infringement cases it’s up to the fight.

Both lawsuits are reminders of why patent fights should
remain a province of the federal courts, not state-based laws and litigation –
a recent and somewhat troubling trend, especially for entrepreneurs who worry
about losing their intellectual property to the big guys.

Federal courts have the expertise and experience to handle
complicated patent suits; state courts do not. Such suits are about interstate
commerce, not intrastate disputes. The Patent Act of 1790 deliberately put the
federal government, not the states, at the center of intellectual property
management. That precedent should stand.

  • A San Diego company called SGB is exciting the
    biofuels world through its success in modifying a drought-resistant species of
    plants – jatropha – to produce high-quality seed oil that can be turned into
    low-carbon jet or diesel fuel.

The buzz may well be justified, given the plant’s natural
hardiness and genetic breakthroughs that promise the production of commercial
qualities of oil. However, another high-flying firm much closer to home is also
on the flight path for plant-based jet fuels.

Madison-based Virent
is using the carbohydrate portion of plants, such as corn stover, to
produce test quantities of two jet fuels. Both Virent products are considered
identical to petroleum-based fuels because of their freezing points, boiling
points and thermal stability. That means they can be safely “dropped in” to the
existing refinery infrastructure. Oil from jatropha plants must be further
refined before it can be used as fuel.

Which process is better? Investment dollars and market
acceptance will tell, perhaps more so than technology. However, the prospect of
biofuels competing with conventional fossil fuels may mean there’s room for
both in the aviation industry.

Just following up…

  • Former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s transformation from
    politician to businessman was the subject of a December 2013 column. Through
    Thompson Holdings, he has invested in or is advising about 30 companies, mostly
    in health care technology but largely outside Wisconsin. Thompson will talk
    about his plans to get more involved in Wisconsin companies at the Feb. 13
    meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Wauwatosa. Learn more or sign up
    to attend at
  • Another December 2013 column focused on Boeing’s
    search for a place to build the 777x jetliner, and how Wisconsin’s siting bid in
    Milwaukee drew upon the state’s deep but little-known aerospace expertise. As
    many observers predicted, unionized Boeing workers grudgingly accepted the
    company’s contract offer and the 777x plant will stay in the Seattle area.
    Wisconsin officials expected that might happen, too, so the bid didn’t contain
    hard-and-fast numbers about tax incentives and other financial lures. That’s
    just as well. There’s no advantage in tipping the state’s hand to the next
  • Reports on Wisconsin’s venture capital rankings
    vary depending on how the numbers are reported, but two recent reports speak to
    the continuing strength of the state’s angel investors. Angels often invest in
    startups as individuals or through networks, long before venture capitalists
    enter the picture. The latest Halo Report by the Angel Capital Association
    identified Wisconsin Investment Partners in Madison as one of the nation’s most
    active angel groups for the third quarter of 2013. Another report by Xconomy
    cited Wisconsin’s Act 255 investor tax credits program as one of the nation’s
    best. Since 2005, about $60 million in tax credits have generated nearly $250
    million in private investments in 160 eligible Wisconsin companies.