10 Patents that Launched Billion-Dollar Empires

By Rupert Mayer

To pivot or not to pivot. That’s the question hundreds of technology startups ponder when their original vision fails to take flight. For some, it’s a successful move. Consider Pinterest, which launched in 2009 as a mobile shopping app called Tote, or Groupon, which began life in 2007 to promote consumer activism before morphing into a wildly successful daily deals site.

Other startups remain true to the original vision of the founders. By analyzing their first patent filings, it’s easy to see which ones have remained committed to plans likely first sketched on a whiteboard in a spare bedroom. In many cases, these “seminal patents” closely describe what the company stands for today.

Here are the first patents granted to ten of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies. Fledgling startups when they first filed to protect their intellectual property, they’ve since created billion-dollar businesses around the seminal inventions detailed below. Most of them have gone on to build out robust patent portfolios, and several are using IPfolio to manage those today.

1. Dropbox: Network folder synchronization

Filed in August 2010 by Dropbox co-founders and MIT alums Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi, this patent details how multiple clients can share and synchronize folders and their contents across a network. Version control ensures everyone can access the latest iteration of a file. If you’ve ever used Dropbox, you know this is a core part of why online file sharing and access became so popular so quickly.

2. FireEye: System and method of detecting computer worms

Former Sun Microsystems engineer Ashar Aziz founded security startup FireEye in 2004. His vision was first detailed in this March 2005 patent. His method of identifying and responding to a specific network security risk category evolved into the company’s main product line, the FireEye Malware Protection System. A massively successful IPO on NASDAQ followed in 2013.

3. Zynga: Asynchronous challenge gaming

Zynga VP Andrew Busey and software engineer Christian Primozich filed this patent in November 2008 to protect Zynga’s nascent social gaming plans. The method described how individual characters and character teams could challenge others based on characteristics such as abilities, powers, defenses and performance levels. While Zynga’s vertiginous growth has levelled off, the brand remains synonymous with social and casual gaming on mobile and desktop.

4. Square: Systems and methods for decoding card swipe signals

Square certainly had its IP management strategy devised early on; it filed its first patent and a dozen others on the same day. This patent, which cited founding engineer Sam Wen as inventor, was filed in October 2010. It details exactly what anyone who has visited an arts and craft festival in recent years knows well – swiping a credit card on a mobile phone is an incredibly easy way to buy and sell anything. It’s also a great way to create a multi-billion-dollar valuation.

5. Facebook: Dynamically generating a privacy summary

Interestingly, this isn’t the first patent granted to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, though it was the first that he filed. Six years passed before he and co-inventor Chris Kelly, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, received formal approval of their invention in July 2012. It addresses privacy settings, and systems and methods to dynamically generate a privacy summary based on an individual’s privacy setting selections.

6. Theranos: Medical device for analyte monitoring and drug delivery

Few people beyond the medical research industry and Silicon Valley venture capital circles had heard of Elizabeth Holmes before she vaulted into the media spotlight in 2014 as the youngest self-made female billionaire on the Forbes 400 list. This application filed in August 2005 was her first. Based on a vision of rapid medical diagnosis and treatment, the method is a wearable patch to help administer drugs, monitor patients’ variables in the blood, while adjusting the dosage as needed. Many other patent applications – Holmes is listed as a co-inventor on over 100 – have followed, including one in 2007, Real-time detection of influenza virus. Considering that the World Health Organization estimates an annual influenza death toll worldwide of between 250 000 to 500 000, that could be a lucrative patent. Not surprisingly, Theranos’ valuation now exceeds $10B.

7. SolarCity: Methods for financing renewable energy systems

The home solar industry had been in existence of decades when VP of Strategy David Arfin unveiled an innovation (March 2008 patent filing) that was recognized in 2009 by Scientific America as one of twenty world-changing ideas to build a cleaner, healthier and smarter world. The SolarLease® is a business method using tax-deductible home loans to finance solar installations. Rampant growth using the lease process detailed in the patent made SolarCity one of the hottest brands in the resurgent renewable sector in the USA.

8. GoPro: Harness system for attaching camera to user

GoPro founder and CEO Nicholas Woodman’s vision has always centered on enabling people to record the fun part of life. His first patent, filed in February of 2004, detailed a harness to attach a camera safely to your body so it wouldn’t dislodge while surfing, rock climbing, dancing, kiteboarding or doing anything else. GoPro’s growth soared starting in 2009 upon the release of its own line of affordable video cameras, and the brand has become synonymous with recording life’s dynamic moments.

9. Google: Method for node ranking in a linked database

This is Google’s famous PageRank patent. Larry Page’s invention valued a webpage based on how many other pages linked to it. Filed in January 1998, the approach provided a significant improvement in the quality of search results, a key factor in Google’s rise as the dominant search engine. Interestingly, the original assignee was Stanford University, which received 1.8 million shares of Google stock in exchange for a long-term license. When your company name becomes a verb, you know the IP behind the activity is pretty valuable, and worth protecting.

10. Apple: Microcomputer for use with video display

Decades before Apple expanded into mobile communication, music distribution and timepieces, it was synonymous with digital design. Steve Jobs’ less well-known co-founder Steve Wozniak invented a method for displaying color and high resolution graphics using a standard cathode ray tube, which this April 1977 filing described.

Protecting The Next Big Thing

Silicon Valley is all about innovation, and IP management is a vital part of ensuring that inventions are protected. As this list shows, many of the Valley’s biggest names are still following the innovation vision detailed in their first patent filings.

At IPfolio, we have been been fortunate to grow up witnessing the success of these companies, and we are looking forward to helping the next generation of entrepreneurs manage and protect their creativity.

[This post originally appeared at the IPfolio Blog.]



  1. […] inventions not only keep the modern world running, they’re potentially worth a lot of money! Let’s explore a few tech patents that changed the world and made their inventors rich […]

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