Iridium Patents Soar Anew in Licensing Deal

A collection of satellites called Iridium became a symbol in the 1990s of overambitious engineering, and later a turnaround story. Now the network may also be linked to the imaginative financial engineering going on around patents.

Intellectual Ventures, a Seattle firm known more for acquiring patents than dispensing with them, announced a deal this week to sell rights to a large portfolio of satellite communications patents to Thales Alenia Space, a Franco-Italian joint venture that recently won a contract to supply a new fleet of satellites to Iridium Communications. Where did the inventions come from? Mainly the original Iridium project.

The man who can explain this circular-sounding process is Vincent Pluvinage, a veteran in patent-trading circles who runs a unit of Intellectual Ventures in Silicon Valley. His six-person team focuses on what he calls “strategic” acquisitions–pools of patents costing $10 million to $50 million or so–that can be repackaged and bring a return to the firm widely known as IV.

A key focus for the group is large technology-development efforts that churned out a large number of patents, whether or not the companies developing the technologies were successful. “If we find a situation like that, what we ask ourselves is, what other assets could we assemble that would be synergistic–then where could we redeploy the assets and create a return,” he says.

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