Will we see an iCar tomorrow?

As an Apple fan myself, I pay a lot of attention to new products and innovations from that company. Today, I found in the news that Apple is being sued by A123 Systems for poaching their employees and potentially sabotaging their ongoing research.

A123 Systems
A123 Systems is wholly owned by Wuxi Wanxiang Group, which is a major electric automobile manufacturer in China. It is a company doing research on advanced energy storage technologies, with a focus on lithium ion batteries. The small portfolio of products that A123 Systems has in the market includes the 18650 (similar size to AA) lithium ion battery and 18650 battery packs for grid and heavy machinery power supply. The 18650 pack has a similar construction as the famous TESLA Model S’s battery pack (nearly 7000 Panasonic 18650 lithium ion batteries are in that pack).

Who did Apple hire? We aren’t being told!
The news did not reveal details about who Apple hired, nor told us about their backgrounds—so I thought it might be possible for me to dig into A123 System’s IP portfolio and see what I could deduce, à la Sherlock Holmes. My company, 4iNNO, makes good use of a proprietary open innovation platform developed by inno360. It has powerful IP mining capability, so combining my curiosity with my not insignificant knowledge of lithium ion batteries and their chemistry, I dug and found some things of interest:


The picture on the right is an Author-Organization relationship analysis on A123 System’s 430+ patents. In the image a named author on a patent, or another related company, and the publishing company are connected by a blue line. Authors working on the same patent are connected by yellow lines.

This analysis shows that A123 Systems patent ecosystem (the big ‘chrysanthemum’ of authors with A123 Systems at the center) is very tight and closed—collaborating only with MIT as a research institute (located close to A123 icon at the center). The small remote cluster on the right bottom corner is related to their core technological competency. This remote cluster is connected to the main ‘parent’ ecosystem via one company—the Wangxiang Group. Thus, a seemingly easy way to tap into A123 System’s core competency is to hire someone from their greater ecosystem.

ecosystem2I filtered my patent results to reveal only a specific sub-domain of technological content within the prior patent set to reveal the result at left. We can see three distinctive collaborative groups (circled). Since Apple’s recruiting of 5-6 engineers from A123 Systems is causing huge negative impacts on A123 System’s business, I supposed that Apple selectively targeted the A123 System’s engineers in a mission critical technical domain—which I suspected to be battery module design and architecture technology (circled in red). Upon closer inspection and quick research of the actual persons in that group I found that the lead engineer in the red triangle is the lead hiring manager at Apple, who left A123 Systems to join Apple recently! So, whom is he trying to attract away?  I don’t know for certain, but my bet might be on those with whom he has collaborated closely in the past. But why?

Maybe we will we see an iCar in the near future
So, is the plan for Apple to develop a new lithium-ion battery pack? Will we see an iCar on the market sometime soon? I am not sure, but based on the patent analysis, there is a reason to believe that Apple is working on the electric vehicle battery module and motor technologies. Let us take a look at some patent records of the authors in the red circle of the above picture for evidence:

Author 1, has in the past worked on fuel cell technology for Ford Motor Company;


Author 2, has worked on electric motor cooling systems for Visteon Global;


And author 3, has worked on electric motor error detection for Ford Global;

Learning from Apple—how to avoid lawsuit when hiring
If the purpose of targeted hiring is to completely paralyze the competitors’ projects, lawsuits may not be avoidable. But if the hiring is only about getting the right talent for the job, while keeping the company’s secret project below the radar, then patent analysis could provide a viable means to see through that screen. Companies have to publish patents in order to protect their technology and competitive advantage, however, they also tell us a lot about the technical strategies, employee connections, and ecosystem. Using patent analysis to help your recruiting can get you a more diversified talent structure, which enables you to comprehensively view the technology development in the industry, but it can also be used to betray strategic activity.

Learning from A123 Systems—Decentralize the core technology
Identify the core technology competence before your competitor does and do whatever you can to keep it. If you found it is hard to retain the core technology talents and your knowledge is centralized around a few technologists, figure out a way to decentralize the technology by putting more people on the project, in the training program, etc.

Want to learn more about 4iNNO and what we do? Contact us for more details.

Qian Li, PhD