A great idea usually begins with a problem.
At Landis+Gyr in Breezy Point, those great ideas are keeping the company’s patent attorneys pretty busy.
In the engineering department of the high-tech company, 17 of its 20 employees are engineers. Of those working there now, at least a dozen of them have one or multiple patents registered with their names as inventors on them.
Some, like Engineering Fellow Damian Bonicatto, have so many that it can be difficult to keep them all straight.
Bonicatto, a 14-year employee who started at the company when it was Hunt Technologies, has his name registered as inventor or co-inventor to nine patents and has 10-11 patents pending with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Bonicatto said all the patents he has listed in his name involve the technology the company has developed. Gridstream, a two-way communications process, not only sends meter-reading information back to utility companies through the power lines, but also allows for the ability to monitor electric customer usage and send and receive other data, such as detecting and reporting power outages at individual homes and businesses.
“Meter reading is just a small piece of what we do now,” explained Bonicatto.
Bonicatto said it can take 3-5 years for a patent to complete the approval process. He said the Breezy Point company holds between 30-40 patents since it was started in the mid-1980s by Paul and Lynn Hunt out of their Brainerd home. The company, then Hunt Technologies, was moved to Breezy Point in 1994 and then moved into its current office in 2000. Landis+Gyr purchased Hunt Technologies in 2006.
While Landis+Gyr obviously holds the license for the patents, the employees who invent a new technology, process or product receive a financial award from the company. They also receive an official plaque from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Bonicatto said the design engineering department is given tasks from product management to try and figure out how to accommodate the needs of a client. If the engineering staff runs into a problem, then they must work to find a solution.
If that solution involves a new idea or concept, it is vetted by senior technical engineers working for Landis+Gyr in North America who are part of a patent review committee.
Bonicatto said because the smart technology being developed in this industry is such a narrow field, he and other engineers at Landis+Gyr usually have a good understanding of whether they have developed an idea worth getting patented.
“You kind of get a feel when you do something unique,” Bonicatto said with a smile.
Employees are encouraged to fill out an invention disclosure form when they invent something that could potentially be patented. This is used internally only but starts the paper trail for a patent.
When they’re able to patent their technology and ideas, it provides Landis+Gyr with more intellectual property that it owns and can protect and can give them an advantage over their competitors, particularly if a patented idea or product becomes very successful.
Patent law changes enacted last year when President Obama signed the America Invents Act of 2011 make it all the more important that Landis+Gyr engineers quickly notify supervisors of a potentially patentable idea.
In the past, the U.S. had a first-to-invent patent system, where if two inventors claim they had developed the same idea, then the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would review the evidence and determine who had the idea first.
Now the U.S. has a first-to-file system, where whomever makes it to the patent office with an application first, regardless of when the product or process was invented, is awarded the patent.
Most of the patents are for obscure parts or processes that are difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with the Gridstream and its endpoints, which is what the Breezy Point office developed. Bonicatto showed the paperwork that explained one of his patents – it was more than 50 pages long.
Robert Zeppetelle, director of engineering, has a plaque on his office wall listing one of his three patents that he helped to invent. He has worked at the company for the past 10 years.
Patents, said Zeppetelle, “Are a result from the constant innovation of our design team. Patents also enable our business to leverage unique solutions for competitive advantage.”
Many people may not realize the local company holds so many patents and continues to build onto its products by developing new technology all the time.
“My daughter is 9, she thinks I fix computers,” Zeppetelle said with a smile.
Landis+Gyr operates in more than 30 countries on all five continents. A world leader in electricity metering, particularly in “smart metering systems,” the company has more than 5,000 employees, including about 125 employees based at the Breezy Point office.