Sony’s latest investment in AI start-up has IP chief Mitomo at the centre of overall business strategy

Sony announced this week that it has made a strategic investment in California-based artificial intelligence (AI) start-up Cogitai, with the Japanese company’s IP team playing an instrumental role in the deal.

Founded by a team of computer scientists in September last year, Cogitai is “dedicated to building artificial intelligences .. that learn continually from interactive experience with the real world”, according to its website.

As it reshuffles its business to make the most of emerging trends in consumer technology, Sony has highlighted AI as a key focal area. Talking to Reuters earlier this week, Sony CEO Hiroaki Kitano admitted that the Japanese company is “lagging behind” rivals such as Apple, Facebook and Google when it comes to AI-related technologies. However, he added that he believes Sony’s USP is in the hardware element of AI, and that the firm plans to launch a product or service resulting from the Cogitai collaboration as early as next year.

Sony is a rare example among corporates in Japan’s high-tech sector in so far as that it has regularly turned to M&A – including strategic investments in foreign businesses – as a way of diversifying and strengthening its product portfolio, accessing new technologies and repurposing itself for the modern market. Traditionally, Japan’s major companies have refrained from such activity, seeing it as being in conflict with closely held principles of jimaeshugi (self-sufficiency) and monozukuri (artisanship and craftsmanship in manufacturing).

Someone who has championed this approach is Toshimoto Mitomo, Sony’s senior vice president and corporate executive responsible for intellectual property. Speaking as part of a Japanese CIPO roundtablepublished in issue 76 of IAM, Mitomo said that “many Japanese companies are not presently involved in enough M&A, tech transfer and venture funding activities compared to companies in other countries”. He added that successful examples of IP-based collaboration and open innovation in Japan “are still few in number”, in large part due to “a corporate mindset that still tends to focus on traditional in-house development of technologies and a reluctance to pursue unproven future technologies”.

It is noteworthy that Mitomo is the sole Sony executive quoted in the press release announcing the Cogitai acquisition, where he states that Sony is: “Deeply aware of how previous claims in AI have failed to pan out, but [that] we believe that Cogitai has assembled the people and tools necessary to make rapid progress toward real, continual learning AI and to harness this technology for the betterment of society through innovative commercial applications.”

Interestingly, Mitomo is described in the press release as being Sony’s ‘corporate executive in charge of intellectual property and mid-to-long term business development’. The Sony corporate website indicatesthat his additional responsibilities relating to business strategy officially commenced at the beginning of last month.

That Sony has put its head of IP in charge of this function – integrating IP strategy and business planning at the highest level – speaks volumes about how it views the importance of IP in terms of its future growth plans.

Speaking to IAM after he was featured among our ‘Market Makers’ for 2015 – the top 40 individuals that we identified as driving the global patent market – Mitomo said that while Sony “is known as one of a few Asian operating companies that have an active IP licensing programme and [it] generates sizeable IP licensing revenues, IP licensing is not the company’s main focus… Sony has always been a consumer electronics manufacturer with massive R&D projects, and we use IP to support our main business”. Now that he holds dual responsibility for managing Sony’s IP portfolio and identifying the company’s future strategic direction, he has an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that those objectives are pursued and achieved in as efficient and successful manner as possible.