Bright ideas, big wait on tech payback

In retrospect, what could be more lucrative than the transistor, the Net and DOS? Hindsight's a hard lesson for some inventors. Images: Owners don't always cash in

The tech industry is famous for billion-dollar ideas. But the rewards don't always to go to the inventor.

Some of the most important technologies of the past 50 years--the transistor, the relational database and the microprocessor--weren't the slam dunks for their creators that you might expect.

"If you don't get the model exactly right, capitalism can be unforgiving."
--Jerry Kaplan
Co-founder, Onsale

Some inventors lost their lead through a lack of insight. Corporate politics sometimes plays a role. More often, the delay of payback is simply the result of poor timing--a reasonable strategy at the wrong time. Take the microdrive at the heart of many of today's MP3 players, for instance. It was invented long before the world was ready for something like the iPod.

Still, those billions of dollars in research and development eventually paid off for at least some technology makers.

Here's some notable examples of inventions gone wrong and opportunities missed:

1. The transistor
In 1947, scientists at AT&T's Bell Labs created the world's first silicon transistor. Three of its scientists would later win the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention. Bell Labs obtained a patent for the device, but the invention was licensed to, among others, IBM, Texas Instruments and the forerunner of Sony. The goal was to avoid antitrust problems with the U.S. government. (In a 1956 consent decree, AT&T agreed to license the transistor freely.)

But relatively easy licensing terms cost AT&T millions in royalties.

"There are trillions of transistors in use," said Richard Belgard, a patent consultant.

On the bright side, the foundational patent would have expired in the mid-1960s, years before the computer revolution. By contrast, AT&T got to keep its phone monopoly until the mid-1980s.

AT&T had subsequent brushes with near-greatness, but these seem tougher to explain. It invented, but didn't become the dominant name in Unix. It passed on an opportunity to own cellular licenses in the '80s (although it got into cellular later). It also tried its hand at PCs.

2. Owning a bit of the Internet
Back in the early '90s, Robert Cailliau of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, contacted venture capitalist Sven Lingjaerde to see whether the lab could get funding for its World Wide Web project.

At the time, Lingjaerde was at Swiss firm Genevest; now he's a co-founding partner at Vision Capital.

"When the project grew in size, more money was needed, and the top management of CERN then decided to cut the budget, claiming it was not directly linked to fundamental research and it was starting to cost too much," Lingjaerde said in an e-mail. "We were considering putting money behind the project, but only if a strong U.S. VC would join. We knew that our small means (would) not be enough. The business model was also not clear."

He tried to contact two well-known U.S. venture capitalists. The first never responded, despite several attempts. The second, whom Lingjaerde sent a five-

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