The Hunt – An Innovator's Perspective

IdeaConnection Interview with Fred Thomas, Engineer and Inventor
By Vern Burkhardt
"It is not uncommon that the most strategic inventions evolve based on the entrance of a new material or technology being available that, if combined with an existing product, improves the utility." Fred Thomas

Vern Burkhardt (VB): As the son of diplomatic parents you have lived in a number of countries other than the U.S. including Pakistan, South Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Germany and the Philippines. What were some of your experiences in these countries that are especially memorable for you?

photo of Fred ThomasFred Thomas: When friends ask about some of my most memorable experiences while growing up overseas I invariably tell them about one of three, which could be categorized, I'd say, as being more out of the ordinary. The first, chronologically at least, involves my being kidnapped for a couple of days from in front of my home in Karachi, Pakistan. Funny how, as a four-year-old, not much fazes you. My parents had a scare, though.

Another experience I like to share is about my extended weekend adventure to an Ifugao village in the highlands of Northern Luzon, Philippines. I was a boarding student at Brent School in Baguio City at the time, and had accepted an invitation to visit the home village of one of the school's employees with whom I had become friends. I shall say simply here that I came to learn in quite a startling manner that the Ifugao tribe was traditionally headhunters. I remember, while staring at a couple of human heads hanging from a village hut, the quasi-comforting reassurance from my host, "Don't worry, my clan has not done that kind of stuff in a few years."

The outing that really did shake me up a bit, though, occurred when I was living in Saigon, Vietnam, just prior to the end of the war in 1975. Our family was one of the few US government families allowed back into Vietnam after the Tet offensive. I was 15 at the time, most of my adult height of 6'2", and a big basketball enthusiast. In order to facilitate my playing some basketball, my Dad, a fluent Mandarin speaker, arranged for me to visit a Chinese secondary school in Cholon, the Chinese part of Saigon, to practice with and play on their team a few times a week.

On Saturday mornings the team would load onto a bus and visit other schools in the provinces around Saigon for games. It was on one of these Saturday trips I got quite the scare. We were headed to a school northwest of Saigon, near a town called Cu Chi. I was seated near the back of the bus with a few of the team's players that knew a bit of English, and we were going on about how high the great NBA Connie Hawkins could jump or some such banter. I had brought a US basketball magazine for the ride to use its pictures as a foil for conversation with my limited English speaking teammates as I spoke very little Chinese. We were having a good time.

While we drove along, the bus would cross open landscapes of rice patties and then move into and through groves of rubber trees. As we approached Cu Chi and were engulfed within one of these rubber groves, a band of four Viet Cong soldiers appeared in the middle of the road about 50 yards in the distance with their AK-47s pointed at the bus. As the bus started to slow to a stop, my teammates seated both in front and behind me pushed my Anglo head down and cautioned me to be quiet and hide simultaneously. As I ducked into the floor space in front of my seat, they threw the equipment bag, which was at the back of the bus, on top of the seat I had been sitting in moments before.

When the bus stopped, I could hear the yelling of the Viet Cong soldiers at the driver. He opened the bus door and got off. More yelling. In the meantime I felt as if my heart had stopped. I knew that if they found me I would be toast. I was scared, and really ready to panic. Then I heard and saw at foot level, where my head rested at this point, two of the VC walking down the aisle of the bus. The first hollered to the second, who was approaching the seat in which I was hunkered down and covered with the bag of basketballs. He had found the ice chests with the team's lunch for the day behind the driver's seat. Both quickly removed the ice chests from the bus. Well, the story continues, but for here let it be known I did not become a 15-year-old POW that Saturday. I did have the fright of my life, though.

I learned many years later that the Cu Chi area had about a 75-mile network of tunnels riddled through sub terrain out of which the VC would emerge from small camouflaged holes. Our bus hijackers and my potential captors that Saturday undoubtedly emerged from this now post-war famous labyrinth. Scary then, interesting now.

VB: What led you to become so prolific as an innovator with so many patents in the U.S. and other countries?

Fred Thomas: I enjoy the hunt. The process of cross-pollinating new knowledge about enabling technologies and materials with problems that need to be solved and with my own insights is intoxicating. This mix makes for a challenging and fulfilling cocktail.

On the more pragmatic side of an answer to this question, I would have to say I have had the luxury of working for employers such as Texas Instruments, Iomega, and Hewlett-Packard in technology areas ripe with new problems worth addressing. It would be fair to say this contributed materially, as well, to my 50 or so US patents to date.

VB: Would you describe the process for filing a patent?

Fred Thomas: The patent filing process can be described simply as documenting your invention via the statutory requirements of the US Patent and Trademark Office – USPTO. In other words, it entails filing a conforming patent application for a novel and unobvious creation that has utility – an invention.

In practice, this is done within a corporation by submitting a patent disclosure which supports this criteria, having it approved for filing by that corporation's patent-filing-approval committee based typically on these criteria as well as business efficacy considerations. Next, one works with a patent attorney or agent to draft and file the application. Anywhere from two to five years later you will have an issued US patent. That is the case if the assigned USPTO examiner does not find a flaw in your case for the described statutory criteria.

Remember that business efficacy for the filing is not one of the USPTO invention criteria. Hence, many patents are issued for inventions that have little or limited economic value.

VB: On balance, is it worth filing for patents? Can an inventor make money through this mechanism?

Fred Thomas: Absolutely, yes and yes.

Depending on the entity, there are different objectives for filing a patent and making this more than an inconsequential investment. Corporations understand that a patent is the only legal form of a monopoly allowed in the United States and most of the industrialized world. The duration is approximately a 20-year monopoly in the US if enforced.

Individual inventors, when working to bring an idea to market and capitalize financially on it, really have no asset other than a claim to intellectual property when looking for financing or a licensor of their creation. The patent or patent pending is the asset that drives the opportunity for future commerce.

I have a friend and prior colleague that is a brilliant innovator. He had plenty of patents at the corporation for which we worked, but he was very reticent about whether patents really were a good return on investment. Outside of his employment he invented a simple device, had it manufactured, and then negotiated with a national catalogue sales company to list it in its publication. He did quite well with it for about two years until the catalogue sales company figured out there were no patents filed. This company shortly had the product manufactured for itself, and what was a good situation built on an innovative idea evaporated. The moral of this story is if you have a good idea, which is an invention, and you are going to put the effort into working to sell it commercially, then do yourself a favor and file for a patent.

VB: Are you more like Einstein who engaged mostly in theoretical innovation through thought experiments, or like Edison who innovated practical or business solutions in his laboratory?

Fred Thomas: I am definitely the type of guy who builds and refines his ideas with physical prototypes – if that is possible.

For many years I had an extensive machine shop in my garage to work on my inventions. The best way to get to a working solution, in my opinion, is to do some first order analysis with Mathcad or a spreadsheet to see if the idea has a chance of working based on the basic governing physical properties involved. This simple exercise has killed a lot of my concepts. If you convince yourself it might actually work, then prototype, prototype, prototype.

VB: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur as well as an engineer and inventor?

Fred Thomas: I would like to think of myself as an entrepreneur as well. I did have my own small product development business for a few years, but I think my heart is more into making new solutions or inventions work, and then moving on to the next technical challenge, rather than doing the business due diligence and business directed innovation required to be a truly successful entrepreneur.

I learned a great deal from that experience of having my own business. I like to believe that if I were to do it again, I would be a much better entrepreneur based on the lessons I learned. For right now, though, my corporate R&D employment with Hewlett-Packard is directed at innovation, which I am passionate about.

VB: You have been recognized with many awards for your inventions. Are there one or a few awards that are most memorable for you, or for which you are the proudest to have won?

Fred Thomas: The top three would have to be the Iomega Exceptional Invention Award, the NASA TechBriefs Nano50 Award, and The Electro-Optic Application of the Year Award from Laser Focus World.

The Iomega Exceptional Invention Award has only been awarded a few times in the 30 plus year history of the company. It was awarded for my invention that contributed to the success of the Zip Drive. This single product, the Zip Drive, grew Iomega from a $100 million revenue company to close to a $2 billion revenue company in less than two years. Arguably, the Zip Drive was the most successful single technology product of the past few decades. I am proud to have been recognized by Iomega as one of the key innovators behind that product.

The Nano50 Award recognized my invention of "Subwavelength Optical Data Storage" as one of the top nanotechnology-based inventions for the year awarded. I am particularly proud of this invention because it was based on my discovery, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Arizona's Optical Data Storage Center, of a new optical physical phenomenon. This new phenomenon was that optically reflective surfaces smaller than the wavelength of light can do more than scatter light randomly, but rather deterministically reflect light into patterns by which massively multi-level information can be encoded.

Any award that recognizes your work as the "Electro-Optic Application of the Year" is pretty neat. I started my engineering career as an electro-optic systems engineer at Texas Instruments; hence, a particular satisfaction was obtained in receiving this award. This was for the design and invention of a laser servo-writer that our team dubbed the "LightSaber." It used an acousto-optically pointed and modulated argon-ion laser to ablate about 1.5 million high precision servo control marks in a concentric ring pattern on the Floptical disk. The Floptical drive and media were the first data storage super floppy solution. It had a storage capacity of 21 MB.

VB: What led to your career interest in data storage, sensors, actuators, electro-optics, machine vision, nano-technology, data security, Auto-ID solutions, and network attached storage?

Fred Thomas: I think the nature of this question about the multi-disciplinary nature of my work can best be addressed with some comment on my education and its influence on my technical interests and work.

In engineering school I pursued both mechanical engineering and physics degrees. Mechanical engineering covers quite an expanse of the physical sciences, and via the physics study I filled in some other gaps with courses in electro-magnetic theory, optics and electronic design. Actually, one of the things that broadened my perspective and interests the most, due to studying physics, was the simple introduction to Richard Feynman's three-volume classic Feynman's Lectures on Physics. I still reach for them whenever I am starting work in a new area or need a refresher on a topic I have not explored in a while. I would in large part attribute these books to opening my eyes to a myriad of new technical topics. In many cases my eventual work-directed exploration of new technologies, such as those listed in your question, was based, at least initially, on the understandings and exposure Feynman's lectures provided.

A story I like to tell that puts the breadth of Feynman's lectures in perspective to those not initiated is this. As part of my job I was visiting the MIT Media Lab on a corporate sponsorship visit. The Media Lab employs faculty from all sorts of different disciplines, and some of the best researchers in the world work there. I was at an evening mixer at a local Cambridge watering hole with the other corporate sponsors and the Media Lab's staff. During the evening I had an interesting discussion with a tenured Massachusetts Institute of Technology Physics Professor working at the Lab. Within the mix of our conversation the topic of what the definition of the science of physics covered came up. He looked at me squarely and said, "The answer is not as protracted as you might think; if Feynman wrote about it, it is physics; if he did not, it is not."

VB: Would you talk about your work related to removable data storage products?

Fred Thomas: I spent nearly 15 years working on removable data storage innovations and products at Iomega. I enjoyed my work there, and in particular the high caliber of engineers with whom I had the pleasure of working. Some of the Iomega products for which I contributed innovations include the Zip Drive, Floptical Drive, JAZ Drive, Peerless Drive, Clik! Drive, and Bernoulli Box Drives. These were all Iomega invented and developed products, all with many innovative components.

To limit the scope of my comments I will talk about only one of the many critical areas of concern related to removable magnetic data storage drive design – ameliorating the effects of airborne contamination. These sorts of contaminates impact the drive's magnetic head, which flies very close to the media, from being able to reliably read and write data. For example, in the REV drive the magnetic head flies about 1.5 nanometers above the recording media. To put this in perspective, that is about 1/50,000th the diameter of a hair on one's head. Lots of dust flying around the air is boulders, comparatively speaking. This is not a trivial problem. Numerous creative techniques are employed to protect against this issue. A couple examples to which I was a primary innovation contributor in this domain include two high tech scrub pads.

With the REV drive, a high capacity hard platter-based cartridge drive, the ceramic magnetic recording heads that fly over the media would at times get contaminated from airborne debris. A method was needed to clean the heads' air-bearing surface to restore their flyability, if you will. These heads could be removed from the media via a ramp loading mechanism in the drive and rubbed against a textured scrubbing pad. A particular challenge was what would be the most effective surface against which to scrub a contaminated magnetic recording head. The solution was to use a structured surface sol-gel optical diffractive hologram as the tuned abrasive surface for this application. Sol-gel is liquid molded glass. I like to point to this as being a fairly out-of-the-box innovation – light homogenizing refractive hologram as a magnetic thin-film head scrub pad.

Another debris-mitigating invention, which was also based on the innovative use of a new enabling material, was a flexible disk cartridge liner material made of Teflon fibers – Gore-Tex®, if you will. The advantage versus a more traditional liner material was three-fold. The Teflon fiber has a low coefficient of friction rubbing against the flexible disk, hence lowering motor power requirements for spinning the disk. Second, the Teflon did not absorb critical lubricant from the disk surface. Finally, the stiffness of the Teflon fibers was sufficient to effectively transfer kinetic energy to dust particles and cleanse the disk surface.

VB: Has the "Articulated Optical-DVD" technology, which you developed, been commercialized?

Fred Thomas: No, it has not. The most recent patent in this technology area was issued not too long ago – in late 2010 – to EMC Corporation, which purchased Iomega in 2008. Iomega is where I invented Subwavelength Optical Data Storage and filed some patents on this work. This most recent patent, "Massively Multi-level Optical Data Storage Using Subwavelength Sized Nano-grating Structures," covers the use of nano-grating structures to encode information in a multi-level format via reflected amplitude, polarization, phase, wavelength, and spatial orientation state changes imparted by these nano-structures on a focused spot of light.

I am not privy to what EMC intends to do with this IP, and whether there are plans to pursue the R&D and product development work required to bring it to market. I believe there is great promise in these inventions.

Let me provide some perspective here. The time lapse between the time when James Russell at Battelle Labs invented the CD technology and when Sony and Phillips first commercialized it in 1982 was about 15 years.

VB: Do you anticipate there will be future breakthrough discoveries related to digital storage?

Fred Thomas: Yes, I do.

One in particular, which I believe shows great promise, is the discovery or invention of the memristor at HP Labs about three years ago. A memristor is a unique fourth class of fundamental electronic device, the others being the resistor, capacitor and inductor. The remarkable property of the memristor is that the electrical resistance of the material can be increased or decreased dependent on the direction of current flow through this two-terminal device. The resistance remains at the level it is driven to after current is removed. Hence, one can see how this device, based on a newly discovered physical property, has the potential to provide the basis for revolutionary new data storage technologies.

What I find most interesting is that the material in which the memristor properties was discovered, titanium dioxide, only appears to exhibit these memristor-type properties, on an appreciable scale, when the material is fabricated with nano-scale wire dimensions. In this manner it correlates with my work on subwavelength optical data storage in that the secret to storing lots of bits in both cases lies in the discovery of the hidden nature of physical interactions at the nano-scale. This is where the future of data storage, I believe, will emerge, in the new frontiers of nanotechnology. [Vern's Note: Readers who are unfamiliar with nanotechnology may wish to spend some time at the Nanotechnology.com site.]

VB: You have also demonstrated creativity in the area of intellectual property strategy. Would you talk about this?

Fred Thomas: Vern, this is one of my favorite topics. Here are two examples of how strategic intellectual property considerations manifest themselves in the actual product development cycle.

If you have a high margin product that has the potential for others to want to copy and bring it to market to cut into your market ownership, then you must be very selective in how even the simplest problems are to be solved for that product. Strategically, you should choose methods to solve those problems that are inventions, and in particular, inventions where the utility is hard to replace without significant added expense to the product. The razor or razorblades-like business of removable data storage cartridges and drives presents a case for such consideration.

In the furtherance of this type of strategy, I was responsible for the invention of an array of different cartridge authentication tags which were incorporated into almost all of Iomega's removable data storage cartridge products. These tags patented the use of phosphorescence, retro-reflection, and magnetic media laser-ablation for different removable data storage system-enhancing utilities. Actually, there was an article written and published in IEEE Computer Magazine a few years ago titled "Penny Tag Technologies for Removable Data Storage" that details the considerations that go into this type of strategic IP planning.

Another strategic IP decision that faces companies is the interpretation of the thin gray line of what constitutes obviousness or unobviousness relative to an inventive new combination of elements creating a product. There are three statutory requirements that define if a creation is an invention in the US. The first being, if the creation is novel; meaning, that it never has been produced or described in the public domain before. The second is that the creation has utility, which in reality is quite a low hurdle. Amusement is even a utility. A favorite illustration here is the invention of a fly swatter that makes an "ouch" sound when you strike with it. It meets the utility requirement. The final requirement is that the creation be unobvious to one skilled in the art of the creation. If all three criteria are met, then the creation can be considered an invention and is patentable. It is this third criterion of unobviousness that is many times the thin gray line facing most scrutiny when evaluating with one's patent counsel as to whether to file for a patent.

It is not uncommon that the most strategic inventions evolve based on the entrance of a new material or technology being available that, if combined with an existing product, improves the utility. Many times whether this is obvious or not relates to this thin gray line. Proactive strategic patent pursuit would ensure that one files in cases where the value of a potential patent in this category is significant. This is the case with a patent filed and issued to a colleague of mine and myself at Iomega. "Removable Cartridge Recording Device Incorporating Antiferromagnetically Coupled Rigid Magnetic Media," I would venture to say, was the most strategically important patent to Iomega in most recent years. It basically precluded any other company from entering the removable hard platter-based data storage cartridge business.

VB: Would you talk about your educational website?

Fred Thomas: I would call this a hobby site. It started with my interest in learning how to put a simple website on line. I had a spreadsheet within which I compiled various magnitudes of things, for a variety of units of measure, which were of interest to me and useful in allowing me to gain perspective on topics I was working on. I thought this would be a neat thing to be able to access on-line, and maybe have others contribute too. From this initial exercise, the units of measure website was born.

It turned out to be a useful website from a content and educational perspective in that it provides a database of information on a variety of units of measure and the relative magnitude of things within their domain. The idea and goal is to provide perspective-based metrics on the magnitude of most any physical quantity.

VB: Why do you focus on units of measure on your website?

Fred Thomas: When I was a freshman mechanical engineering student at Bucknell University, we were required to take a single semester course called "Introduction to Engineering." This course was taught by one of the most affable professors in the college of engineering, a gentleman named Charlie Coder. Each day he would show up in class with a smile and twinkle in his bright blue eyes. He would lecture about obscure units of measure like the slug, the finger, the jerk, and countless others. His message was that engineering and science revolved around understanding the interplay of different physical quantities or units within the governing equations we would spend the next four years learning and exploring. "You need to make sure that your units cancel appropriately such that your equation remains balanced," was Professor Coder's continual refrain.

From that time forward I have had a fascination with units, their variety, their history, and the relative magnitude of items within each of their domains.

VB: I understand you teach an "Invention for Kids" course at local elementary schools. Would you talk about this?

Fred Thomas: Sure. Over the years I have been invited to give invention talks at my kids', nieces, and nephews' elementary and middle schools. I have two favorite and seemingly well received activities during these talks.

One is having the students go to a local store to find a product with a patent number on it, write it down, and then find it on the USPTO website. They are then asked to come to class and tell what they have learned about this invention.

A second activity is based on a simplified invention disclosure form I provide to the kids. They are then asked to invent something and describe it on the form. Optionally, the kids can build a prototype. They are given about two weeks. You would be surprised at the number of kids who actually build something.

Over the years, I have had a few parents tell me their children still scour products for a patent number while shopping. I'm thinking there will be a few inventors in the mix when they become adults.

VB: Do you think the U.S. will continue to be a leader in technological developments?

Fred Thomas: That's a tough question. What I see in corporate America is a foreshortening of the window of time by which the performance of a company is targeted, and hence its technology investment horizon. Publically traded companies are more and more driven to obtain the greatest short-term returns. The market wants this, and the frameworks upon which senior executives are compensated promote this end. Whether this is in the best interest of the U.S. maintaining its technological leadership role in the world is debatable.

It's easy to surmise that long-term basic research has and will become scarcer at American corporations. I have to wonder whether basic innovations, which can take visionary investments in time and money, will continue to be developed in such an environment. This environment is paralleled by an increasingly lack of support for publicly financed visionary efforts by government directed at science and engineering innovation, such as the space program.

On the flip side, I am a believer in entropy, and these developments I have raised as concerns will most probably elicit fundamental entropic changes in the U.S. economy. That is, they will elicit new seemingly spontaneous creations of productive order from which new technological development models will emerge. For example, there has been an emergence of a U.S. innovation economy driven by small start-up firms fueled by venture capital. These firms operate in a Darwinistic environment where they either produce viable innovation quickly or die. Those that succeed and produce innovative technologies demanded by the economy reap the rewards of their success, a large publically held corporation buyout. Large corporations hence can adopt a shop-for-innovation model via this mechanism and continue to serve the master of maximized short-term returns.

These types of evolutions of the U.S. technology economy will either provide a new model for the world and the U.S. will continue to be the leader in technological development or the converse will present itself. The turtle will emerge ahead of the hare, and countries with corporate and governance environments more attuned to long-term approaches for funding and developing technology will emerge as tomorrow's champions. I'm not smart enough to make any bets here, but it will make for an interesting ride. Rough in parts is my guess.

VB: What message do you have for today's youth?

Fred Thomas: Get an education. Embrace how fun it is to learn. Develop a taste for it. Like coffee, learning will go from a bitter, wretched drink of your parents to something you look forward to each morning. Then never stop learning.

Take your education and channel it with discipline, hard work and a passion for what it enables you to do.

Then, most importantly, come to understand that perseverance is the secret to overcoming life's failures in your pursuits. Remember, there will be plenty of failures and it is all right to fail, but it is not okay to quit persevering.

Finally, value others' time, perspective, and their dignity as you value your own.

Life is short, so be kind, share love, and be mindful of the common good, not just your own.

Smile and laugh as often as possible.

VB: Are you optimistic about the future?

Fred Thomas: I have two great kids, as do many of IdeaConnection's readers. The future is theirs to make. Hence, with a new generation of minds with a heightened sense of the importance of a mindfulness directed toward the common good, I am optimistic about the future. I see this in my children and their friends.

It will be a more global future, full of need and opportunity to improve the future of our planet. I see optimistically a future where we understand the imperative for technology to be more focused not just on the needs of humanity, but on humanity's needs in the context of a healthy planet.

VB: What books would you recommend to our readers who are interested in the topics of creativity, inventions, and innovation?

Fred Thomas: Well, as I said earlier in our conversation, a great start would be the three-volume Feynman Lectures on Physics. If it is physics, it is covered here and covered with much insight. Remember, invention is all about bringing insight into the mix.
The Art of Electronics by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill is a great pragmatically-directed text on circuit design. I highly recommend it. On the manufacturing front, I particularly like Handbook of Product Design for Manufacturing: A Practical Guide to Low-Cost Production edited by James Bralia, because it explicitly details the mechanical tolerances that can be held for different fabrication processes. Too many books in this genre are fluid with descriptions of fabrication processes, but very thin on capabilities expressed as hard tolerance numbers.
A good start for those who want to understand inventions and patents better is the cartoon enunciated Patent it Yourself: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Filing at the US Patent Office by David Pressman. This is the book I recommend to those with the general comment and question to me, "I have this great idea and I want to patent it, what should I do first?" Go get and read this book.

On the topic of better understanding how to more wisely and selectively direct your innovation focus is a great book titled The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton Christensen. An understanding of what is "disruptive technology and innovation" should be well internalized by all who want their inventive insights well targeted. Fast Innovation: Achieving Superior Differentiation, Speed to Market, and Increased Profitability by Michael George, James Works, Kimberly Watson-Hemphill, and Clayton Christensen builds on Christensen's work and prescribes a model for execution with appropriate focus on the need for new product differentiation. It's a tactical innovation delivery gem.

Finally, I would throw into this mix the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. It offers lots of practical techniques for innovators to refine their process of getting from point "A" to point "B" quickly, efficiently, and without as much procrastination. I'm a big "GTD" fan.

VB: What are you currently working on?

Fred Thomas: I am a relatively recent employee of HP. I have been here about six years now. Initially, for the first few years, I worked on hardware engineering and design for the HP MediaSmart Home Server products. The hardware design incorporates many innovative and unique-to-the-marketplace features. These designs won several international industrial design awards for their striking iconic appearance. It is fair to say I was a principal contributor on both of these fronts, engineering and industrial design. About a dozen of these digital managed home innovations merited US patent issuances for my directed efforts. It was a very creative and differentiated product for HP in the personal computing space. Hence, I found significant reward from my work on this product family.

I can't discuss the specifics of what I am working on presently, but I can say this – I work in a group within the Hewlett-Packard Desktop Computer R&D Division called the Innovation and Incubation Group, focused on bringing differentiation and innovation to the next generation of HP PCs. I manage and contribute to a variety of efforts, about a dozen or so, directed at migrating new technologies with innovative user experience models associated with them.

The team I work with is distributed all over the country, and the world for that matter. It is comprised of engineers, business savvy professionals, and scientists of exceptional talent. It is a fun, growth- filled, and challenging job. We have some real compelling stuff coming down the pipe. Stay tuned.

VB: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to learn the skills required by inventors?

Fred Thomas: The one thing that I have learned over the years, something I find many innovative engineers blissfully ignore, is the basics of patent law, and in particular what a patent claim is and how it is structured to legally describe an invention. At the end of the day, this is how one's inventive ideas will be captured and linguistically distilled.

It really is a simple idea that inventions, in patent claim form, are described as merely a new combination of elements. This has provided me with a crystal clear understanding of whether or not I have an opportunity to move past pure engineering and to invent.

VB: Are there any other topics you would like to discuss?

Fred Thomas: I think we have covered quite a bit here today. I just want to thank you, Vern, for having an interest in what I have to say about innovation and related, as well as some unrelated, topics. I have really enjoyed our discussion.

Conclusion:
It is great to hear the perspective of a brilliant inventor who has been responsible for breakthrough discoveries. One of the many take aways is Fred Thomas' advice about what is a patentable invention: "inventions, in patent claim form, are described as merely a new combination of elements."

Fred Thomas' Bio:
Fred Thomas received a BS in Mechanical Engineering with a Minor in Physics from Bucknell University in 1982. In 1990 he received a MS in Mechanical Engineering specializing in Control Systems and Non-linear Dynamics.

He has been employed at Hewlett-Packard for the past 6 years, initially as the Principal Technologist, Personal Storage Group; then as the Principal Hardware Architect, MediaSmart Home Servers; and, since December 2010, as Champion for Innovation Intent, PC Ecosystem and Responsiveness. All of these positions resided within HP's Personal Systems Group. Previously Fred Thomas was Chief Technologist, Advanced R&D, at Iomega Corporation, where he was employed from 1991 to 2005. Fred was Owner/Engineer at ProtoType Devices from 1988 to 1991, and an Electro-Optic Systems Engineer at Texas Instruments from 1983 to 1988.

Fred Thomas' technical interest is in the fusion of new technologies for the enhancement or creation of new products. With 48 issued and 20 pending US patents, Fred has demonstrated his creativity in several fields, including data storage, sensors, actuators, electro-optics, machine vision, nano-technology, data security, network attached storage and intellectual property. His work at Iomega Corporation was essential to the Zip, Jaz, Clik!, Floptical, Peerless and REV removable storage products. His work on subwavelength optical data storage, which allows for multiple 10s of fold increase in the capacity of DVDs, is embodied in two issued and one pending patent.

His work at HP within the Personal Systems Group (PSG) to date is directed at innovation in both the personal home server and desktop PC product lines. These efforts are manifest in the issuance of 10 US patents directed at product resident HP inventions. He has numerous other patents pending, directed at future HP product differentiating innovations.

His awards include the International Design Excellence Award in 2009, Industrial Forum Product Design Award in 2008, "Nano50 Award" for "Subwavelength Optical Data Storage" in 2005, Lemelson-MIT "Inventor of the Week" Award in 2004, Iomega "Exceptional Invention Award" in 1999, and Laser Focus World "Electro-Optic Application of the Year Award" in 1994.

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