In her first interview since becoming the chief IP officer at Ericsson Christina Petersson has made clear that continuity and adaptability are her priorities as she guides the company’s licensing operation towards the advent of the 5G era. “It is a challenge and one that I feel humble in facing, but also excited about. I like challenges!,” Petersson stated on Monday, the day she permanently took on the role.
A 20-year veteran at Ericsson, Petersson began her career there as a trademark attorney having graduated with a master’s in law from Sweden’s Uppsala University. That gives her a very different foundational background to her two predecessors, Kasim Alfalahi and Gustav Brismark, both of who were non-lawyers. However, Petersson made clear that she did not see that as an issue. “I have long and deep experience of working in the IPR and licensing team. I started off as the only person in legal supporting it back in 2003, so I have been a part of the group for 17 years,” she explained.
In any case, she went on, these days it is very unusual for any one person to have all the skill-sets necessary to run an IP operation as big as Ericsson’s. “We have people with strong technical, business and legal skills – and that is what you need to deliver a successful strategy,” Petersson stated. “This is what Kasim Alfalahi created and what Gustav took on and developed. I feel very comfortable assuming the leadership as I know that we have a good team.”
Petersson explained that her initial priority is giving herself a couple of months to get acquainted with all aspects of the job - one of the biggest there is in IP. Like Brismark, she will be responsible to an internal Ericsson leadership team that reports direct to the CEO and she will oversee an operation that in some years has generated over $1 billion in royalties for the company. “Of course, IPR is important to the success of Ericsson. The chance to get a fair return on the investments we have made in R&D is crucial for us,” she said.
Petersson was also positive about Ericsson’s current position and its prospects for the future: “Right now we are in a good spot. We have just done the Oppo deal [signed in February– the company’s first with a major Chinese operator] and that has given us good momentum in our licensing discussions. As always, we are in constant renegotiations of existing deals while new companies are also gaining traction in the market.“
That is particularly the case with 5G now beginning its initial roll-out; and while this undoubtedly means new opportunities, Petersson was clear that Ericsson needs a degree a flexibility if it is to maximise them. “The market is evolving and with 5G we will have new verticals using cellular standards. This is something we will have to adapt to and I am confident we can do it,” she said. “We are constantly re-evaluating our business model and adapting it. It is obvious that the market is changing and we need to stay on top of this in order to create new solutions.”
She held up the development of the Avanci platform as an example of how this had already happened: “It is important to listen to what the market says. That is what we did when it came to the establishment of Avanci: we initiated a discussion with potential licensees and got them to tell us about their concerns, then having taken on their points we developed a solution that would work for both them and us.” Asked whether she sees Avanci-like solutions for other 5G-related verticals, Petersson was non-committal: “It is difficult to say if we would adopt the same kind of model, but Avanci has expressed an interest in broadening into new areas.”
A lot of what Ericsson hopes to achieve over the coming years will depend on the regulatory regimes that it finds itself working within. In the US, the company already finds itself dealing with an environment that has become noticeably less patent friendly in recent years. Despite a recent, important win over HTC in the Eastern District of Texas, the company has a lot hinging on the outcome of its appeal of the TCL decision handed down by the District Court for the Central District of California in late 2017. In both Europe and across Asia, too, regulatory authorities are paying ever-closer attention to standard essential patent licensing. Petersson, though, expressed confidence that positive solutions would emerge: “I am very hopeful that in the end there will be a balance between the needs of licensees and licensors. That is what FRAND is all about.”
Just a year ago, the IP operations at 5G's big five - Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Qualcomm & Samsung - were all run by men. Now the teams at both the European businesses are led by women: Petersson herself at Ericsson and Maria Varsellona, along with Ewa Hakoranta and Jenni Lukander at Nokia.
Petersson, though, was reluctant to read very much into this. “We have a very diverse team at Ericsson and I just happen to be a woman. My appointment is not part of any plan for change. I have been on the IPR leadership team for seven years,” she stated. However, she continued: “I also recognise that there is a need for more diversity in IP deal-making, which is very male dominated at the moment. That is probably a reflection of the wider situation in many high-tech companies.”
Asked to describe herself and her approach, Petersson made clear she likes to operate in a happy, relaxed environment: “I’m not what you would call a typical lawyer, not maybe so careful with what I say all the time. But I have a lot of fun and laugh a lot, which I think maybe rubs off a bit on the people around me.” She finished on dialogue, internal and external: “More seriously, I’m a big believer in inclusive leadership and team work. Also, my long experience with licensing negotiations means I’ve been very close to our customers and I will continue to prioritise that.”
Christina Petersson will be speaking on the IP in the 5G era panel at IPBC Global (16 to 18 June, Boston) in just a few weeks. You can register to attend the event here: http://www.ipbc.com/2019.