Last week BlackBerry put out a press release announcing what looks to be a pretty significant shift in its patent monetisation strategy. Instead of doing all the work in-house, the company has agreed a deal that gives an entity called Teletry “the right to sublicense a broad range of BlackBerry patents to a majority of global smartphone manufacturers”. BlackBerry will retain ownership of a portfolio “of approximately 40,000 patents and applications” and operate “its own licensing program outside of Teletry's sublicensing rights”. So, this is not a typical privateering-style arrangement.
Teletry is described as “an independent operating company with expertise in building relationships between patent holders and licensees in the wireless technology industry”. It is headed up by Kasim Alfalahi, who will be known to just about everyone who reads this blog as the former chief IP officer of Ericsson and the current CEO of Avanci, the IoT licensing platform.
Avanci is one of several businesses that sit within the Marconi Group, which was created earlier this year. Another is PanOptis, the NPE which, among other assets, owns a number of patents previously held by Ericsson. Although it is not entirely clear, it looks as if Teletry has been specifically created for the BlackBerry venture - it does not have its own website as far as I can tell and the only mention of it on the Marconi website is the press release announcing the BlackBerry deal.
Aside from Alfalahi, there are a number of other very well-known patent deal makers on the Marconi roster, including: former Google and Motorola Mobility patent transactions rainmaker Kirk Dailey; Eric Reifschneider, previously with Qualcomm; and Fred Telecky, once of Texas Instruments and most recently head of the licensing operation at PanOptis.
In terms of organising a licensing campaign to bring on board mobile device manufacturers across the world, you would struggle to find a better connected, more experienced set of operators. Alfalahi and Dailey, for example, were both very closely associated with the acquisitions, licensing deals and litigation that accompanied the birth and roll-out of the smartphone; while among the companies that have been on the other end of PanOptis suits over recent years are Kyocera, Huawei and ZTE. Another is BlackBerry itself. I am only speculating, but is it possible that the recently-agreed deal has something to do with that case? It will be worth watching out for any announcements about it settling.
The news of this deal comes just a few months after IAM revealed that Mark Kokes, senior vice president of intellectual property, licensing & standards at Blackberry, had left the company. Kokes is now with California-based Nantworks and has yet to be replaced by his former employer.
In an interview with IAM conducted just prior to his departure, Kokes waxed lyrical about the potential of the BlackBerry portfolio as a monetisation vehicle: “Our patents cover multiple technologies – maybe 40 plus … We have depth in areas like smart grids, gambling, manufacturing, mobile communications, radars and tracking, logistics, and many more.” What that means, of course, is that there will be plenty for the company's licensing team to get on with while Teletry chases the smartphone makers, presumably on some kind of profit-share basis.
Speaking on a Quarter 2 earnings call to analysts at the end of September, BlackBerry CEO John Chen once again emphasised the importance of IP licensing to the company, stating: “I am hoping that we are going to get to $100 million or so in IP revenue this year.” Of course, that was a few weeks before the Teletry deal was announced, so the odds have to be against Alfalahi and co having an impact in this financial year.
For the following ones, though, both parties will be expecting a return. If Kokes was right about the strength and breadth of the BlackBerry portfolio, outsourcing a large part of the smartphone licensing business to Teletry will free internal deal makers at the company to chase businesses in other verticals. That, in turn, should hasten the arrival of royalties into the company’s coffers – something that will undoubtedly please investors. The hook-up with Teletry may not have been a move that BlackBerry entered into entirely willingly, but it could be one that bears significant fruit.