Selling Prices of NPE-Owned Assets Lag Despite High Quality

Some buyers prefer to pay a premium for a large but still vague patent portfolio than for a handful of proven rights.

“So, sue me,” seems to be the attitude of operating companies when confronted with SME or NPE-held patents that may read on their products and command high potential damages awards or settlements.

Strategic buyers are currently willing to pay a significant premium to market to operating companies for large portfolios (e.g. Google-Motorola) at a market-acceptable price-per-patent. A few extraordinary patents owned by NPEs appear to hold less interest, even if they are more valuable or have been upheld in court. The current acceptable price per patent seems to be under $1 million.

While cost should never trump quality for buyers of significant portfolios, buyers are showing that size and reputation for innovation does matter when it comes to what some companies are willing to pay. Also, no one wants to be accused of overpaying of having to play catch-up because of R&D miscalculations or legal oversights. For cash-rich and increasingly IP-savvy companies like Google and Apple, it is possible to become patent-competitive quickly, unlike Microsoft, which took a decade or more.

imgresThe effect is that many successful IT businesses are acquiring larger portfolios or families when they may currently require only a handful of patents for leverage. A few are able to slice and dice and resell or license parts from the portfolio to mitigate the acquisition cost and facilitate ROI.

A good example is Microsoft’s $1.1 billion acquisition of 925 AOL patents in April. A large part of that portfolio was re-sold to Facebook for $550 million leaving MS with key licenses and 275 patents. Microsoft paid $1.3 million per patent.

Acacia Technologies purchased ADAPTIX from private equity firm Baker Capital for $160 million in January for its 230 patents, some focusing on lucrative 4G inventions. The patents (acquired for approximately $695K each) were then licensed both to Microsoft and Samsung. The licenses may have enabled the purchase.

“Large patent holders have more liberty to generate sales than NPEs,” an IP industry deal-maker told IP CloseUp.

“Most NPEs buy small, focused and typically overlooked litigation-quality patents that need to be enforced to extract full value. For operating businesses, asset and seller reputation helps to command a higher purchase price, but what matters more than who is selling is the quality of the patents, focused evidence of use [what the patents, in fact, read on] and perceived pricing fairness. Currently, few large buyers consider enforcement an option.”

PatentFreedom’s database depicts the largest NPE holders. Of them InterDigital has sold for $375 million to Intel, or $220K per patent. Surprisingly few of even the largest NPEs have sold to an operating company. NPEs typically need to enforce patents to realize a significant return on them.

Defensive aggregator RPX bought NPE Digitude’s portfolio of what were AMD patents for $48 million. Altitude Capital Partners was a Digitude investor.

Jiaqing “Jack” Lu, PhD, CFA is the Chief Economist and a Senior Director for IP Market Advisory Practice (IPMAP) at the Applied Economics Consulting Group, Inc. In his article, “There is No Patent Bubble, Nor NPE Mania,” he notes that “some observers noticed that both the Nortel-Rockstar and Motorola-Google deals were concluded on a $750K per patent basis. Therefore, as the story goes, market price per patent was about $750K per patent.”

Dr. Liu goes on to show that “[The] average prices of the deals with non-NPE parties are two to three times of the prices of those with at least one party being a NPE. Especially, NPE buyers seem to pay average prices that are closer to what non-NPEs are paying, while NPE sellers are likely to receive the lowest prices among all market players.”

*     *     *

Operating companies are buying bigger portfolios at higher cost for multiple reasons, not just direct income.  High portfolio cost is less troubling to them than the perceived proper average cost per patent, as if buying in bulk can explain efficiency. Keeping the right patents out of the hands of the wrong holders (competitors or NPEs) also is meaningful to these buyers.

Strategic buyers are making it clear that it in some cases overpaying for a portfolio of assets or family of patents, including patents they are not likely to need or have little market value, is not always a bad thing if it facilitates their needs. It is somewhat important for them to obtain patents they need or may require (or that others do) without looking like they are desperate or are mitigating R&D or legal oversights.

Typically, less than 5% of an IT patent portfolio has any value. The percentage in an acquisition, I understand, is only slightly higher.

Seldom do we see a large company pay say $100 million or more for six extraordinary NPE-held patents. Even if they are worth ten times that, and even if they can be used against competitors. Their value will need to be proven repeatedly, a task most operating companies are unwilling, or unable, to perform, despite the brand presence they may add. .

One likely impediment for operating companies in acquiring NPE-owned patents is the difficultly of securing board-level buy-in, especially if enforcement is not an option. Another is the perception that litigation-tested patents are unseemly. Some of these businesses believe it is easier to buy a whole company (Motorola) than the 100 or so assets they believe they require for leverage.

It is only a matter of time when a financial buyer (i.e. hedge fund. private equity firm) buys an expensive patent portfolio, or IP-rich IT business, to keep it out of the hands of a party that needs the rights but does not act swiftly.

With some repackaging an investor with sufficient capital and vision can re-sell the portfolio, or company, to the right operating business for a hefty profit. It requires both smarts and guts. The investor would need to understand the assets thoroughly, as well as the demand. It also would need to be willing to enforce them, if necessary.

Illustration source: lexisnexis.com

About Bruce Berman

Independent IP observer, adviser and author.

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