Exclusive Interview with Sam Zellner | Inventor Spotlight

Exclusive Interview with Sam Zellner

Sam Zellner is a Prolific Inventor, an Entrepreneur, Adept Portfolio Manager, Product Lead for PQAI and Ex Director Innovation at At&T.

Mr A: Core innovation happens when we stop believing in the societal norms of accepting ‘that’s how it works’

Sam Zellner: “The corollary to this is believing long held assumptions can’t change. Ken Olsen, CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) said in 1977, ‘there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home’. The challenge for all of us is realizing when a basic assumption is no longer true. The funny thing is it’s always obvious later on!”.


Samuel N Zellner is a prolific American inventor with more than 200 issued and pending patents worldwide. He has held many prestigious positions in the IP fraternity. Sam Zellner retired as Executive Director, Innovation at AT&T in January, 2010. During his tenure at AT&T he created state of the art platforms utilizing Artificial Intelligence (AI). He also developed new approaches in advanced big data concepts to develop high-value patent portfolios and monetize these Intellectual Property (IP) assets. 

His current projects involve creating an open source combinational prior art search engine utilizing AI called PQAI, which stands for Patent Quality through Artificial Intelligence. Sam Zellner is also working on InspireIP, an invention disclosure system making invention management easy for inventors and IP counsels.

Sam Zellner is a board member on a number of the state IP Alliances as well as the newly formed  US Intellectual Property Alliance.  He has also been recognised as IAM 300 Top Strategist 2019. He is experienced in planning and strategizing in high tech. Sam is also on the board of directors of the Licensing Executive Society (LES), Atlanta chapter since January, 2018. 

Exclusive Interview With Sam Zellner

We asked some questions from Sam Zellner and through his experience, he has provided some brilliant insights for the inventors and patent portfolio managers.

#1. What challenges do you face in your daily life as an inventor?

My big joke is that the inventors are some of the loneliest people as they are not able to find support for their ideas. As an inventor, you come up with an idea and if you present your idea to someone, they tend to discount it as being bizarre or incorrect.  

For example, way back when the inventors were thinking about putting cameras on cell phones, everybody was like why would we put cameras on cell phones? data transmission is  expensive, cell phones cannot hold much data and At the time it seemed like a crazy idea.It is hard as an inventor to share  ideas with other people, as inventors typically base their inventions on assumption sets different from the accepted norms. Battery technology will improve (think electric cars), people will change their behavior (think buying online), laws will change (think Uber and taxi licenses).  This is why most people can’t see or accept inventors’ visions.  Later on, when hopefully the idea is adopted, everyone’s lense looks at the concept with the new assumption set will say that either ‘I was also thinking of this idea back then’ or that ‘it was obvious’. It is really hard as an inventor to get credit. With the patent system, the inventor gets some credit as they are recognised with the patent. 

Generally, it’s sort of a lonely life as an inventor, a tough life because very rarely do people acknowledge that you had a good idea. Rarely do you get recognised as doing something novel, rather you are recognised as crazy, which is the common thought process.

#2. Are you part of any inventor groups or community?

I am not aware of a lot of communities. Maybe, the individual inventors are a part of some communities. My experience with corporate inventors is that they tend to talk to their associates, but I am not familiar with the corporate inventors being part of a specific group. You might check with the inventors’ association to see if there are any particular groups that they are pushing towards. I think in Atlanta there are some incubators that have events, which are fairly popular. Tech Village in Atlanta is one.

#3. What motivates you to invent?

As a lot of people say, engineers like solving problems, I think it’s a mixture of curiosity and wanting to solve problems. Patents are about solving problems, so it comes naturally that way. I look at problems and try to think of how to solve them.

#4. When do the best ideas occur to you?

I think most people say that when you are in the shower. On the contrary, I think typically, like I said it’s about solving problems, so the best ideas come a few hours after you see a problem or run into a problem. As they say, your mind is thinking about a problem and to invent, sometimes you really need, almost, the subconscious to be helping you. Because unfortunately, the assumptions that most of us go around with are so strong that it’s really hard to see past those assumptions. Particularly, what are called the ‘old assumptions’ – assumptions that might have been good a year ago but now because of new technologies, change in economic factors or regulatory landscape or something in the environment. Now the old assumption that – ‘we can’t do this’, is probably no longer valid. Then all of a sudden, when you think of assumptions as walls and when you move that wall away, then a whole gamut of opportunities open up. 

It reminds me of location services, I did a lot of patents around location services. Before, we had no real in-location services capability, GPS came and then we had the enhancements with cellular, allowing us to do location for 911. The general thinking of the people was that ‘I don’t know where somebody is when they call, when they are using a phone’, now all of a sudden, anybody can know exactly where the other person is. As an inventor, now you wonder as to what you can do with that. What came to my mind, at the time when it started off, was that the cellular network moves when I leave the house. The cellular network knows when I leave the house, it can see me driving my car, location is changing, then it should know how to change the thermostat in my house. So it’s more efficient, I am saving energy because it used to always bother me that when I leave the house, since in Atlanta it’s very hot, the air conditioning is always on and wasting power that way. So it could let the house get a little warmer when I am not there, there’s no harm and I am saving money, energy. And ideally the cellular network could see when I am coming back again so it could turn the air conditioning on and when I get home, the house would be cool again. So it’s a simple example, once it’s realised that location can be used to control things, now it opens up all kinds of opportunities.

Another thought was now that the cellular network can see me arriving in a city, if there’s a hotel in that city, it can automatically register me for the hotel because it can see that I am coming for my hotel room. So it’s amazing, once I start realising and accepting the fact that I can know where people are, now I can make some assumptions about what should be done based on where I am. So that’s what I mean about the whole idea of changing assumptions and opening up more opportunities.

#5. Is there a systematic approach to coming up with innovations? 

There are a lot of techniques out there, it depends on the person what technique works well. Everybody is different in how they think so it can be different. There are really two parts to this, one there’s getting the seed idea, identifying the problem and on the cusp of solving the problem and then there’s also sort of extending it. So the hard part is getting the seed idea and finding a problem that’s of significance, which hasn’t been solved well. For me, I go through the assumptions that I am making about the problem and test each one to see if it’s true. If I take this assumption, what it does. And that for me helps quite a bit. 

The other piece, which I see a lot of people do and is easy to do, is that as in my example before, about location services and changing the thermostat, people tend to get fixated on one solution to a problem. They don’t really generalise it because again, think about it, the patent is looking into the future. As an inventor you are trying to throw a solution out into the future and it’s very hard to know how the world will change in the future. Therefore, you want to expand your idea plus you don’t know what people have really done. 

That’s one of the reasons why PQAI is so helpful. When you run PQAI, you can see where the thinking is and you can modify your idea based on that. As an inventor, you might find out that people have already thought about your idea, so you might want to think about the next generation of the idea. Maybe there are some aspects of using location to control something, what would come next and where else might you apply, if it’s just thermostats. What about using location to provide package delivery notifications and you know there’s lots of other things there.

When you get a seed idea for an invention, try to generalise it. I think about it as trying to generalise it till all of sudden it’s no longer novel, it gets so broad that you’ll run into the wall that says, it sounds familiar or that’s already been done. In any case it helps you, particularly in the patent because as you know, with a patent you have your initial claim and then you have your dependent claims. Thus, it expands your idea and this way if you do a mapping, like again in the example of location services and controlling the thermostat, you might generalise it from controlling a thermostat to controlling a device and you might define control as turning on and off instead you might want to define control as adjusting or you can say controlling multiple devices. So that helps to broaden out your idea in case some prior art is already there, you can find your segment.

#6. What was your first invention and when?

First invention… I didn’t go anywhere with that but I tried. I had two ideas, one idea was in 1983, creating a phone ringer that would play tunes. My interest was particularly in the fight songs in colleges I attended school at Northwestern University. They have a big marching band and they have their own fight song like most universities do. And I thought that wow all the alumni would love to have their phones ring their school’s fight song. So that was my idea and this is prior to cell phones, so this is at the time of landline phones. At the time, the landline phones did not have any tunes playing, they were basically just a standard ringer. So I was trying to put together the electronics around it and unfortunately, I could not quite get it together. 

The other idea, which sounded crazy back then, was putting TVs in an elevator. I used to work in a high rise building back then. I just noticed how much time people spend in the elevator and how uncomfortable people were in the elevator. Then, I thought to myself, wow, if you could put a TV in there and show some news or something, that would be actually welcome, since people are looking around uncomfortably in the elevator. I actually talked to the city of Chicago elevator commission about putting TVs in the elevators and they thought I was crazy.  Now the ironic thing is, I haven’t seen that many but there are a few TVs in the elevators but you see TVs in public places. It is one of the examples where I should have been thinking broadly because now you see TVs at the airport, gas stations, pumps, and in a lot of different places. It goes back to thinking broadly because sometimes your initial use case is not the most important use case.

#7. What shall be your advice for budding inventors?

Run your idea through PQAI and gather some knowledge about how other inventors have tried to solve the problem. Keep an open mind. Don’t get totally stuck on your one use case. Listen to people, share your idea, obviously in a way that it is protected but maybe after your provisional application or with your close friends to try and get a sense of how people are reacting to your idea. A lot of times it will give you clues as to maybe where you are a little off in your idea. It’s very rare, in my experience, that people have hit it right in their initial idea. They are in the right area, they have the right basic building blocks but it needs to be adjusted in some way. My advice is be open and listen carefully to people’s reactions as it might give you clues for where you should be going.

The other thing is that inventing is very hard. Don’t be discouraged if your first idea might not be novel. It is very hard, you are competing against all the inventors in the world. That’s very tough so don’t get discouraged.

#8. How was your experience as an inventor at AT&T?

My experience at AT&T was very good. AT&T has a very energetic, creative environment and very smart people. We could talk about the new ideas and people were very open to it. We were working with a lot of cutting edge technologies at AT&T. So I found it very easy to come up with new ideas in that environment.

#9. What are some tips you would like to give to a patent portfolio manager?

Again, to have an effective patent one really needs to be broad. So I would want to encourage the patent portfolio managers to make sure the patent is broad enough so that as the future unfolds, the patent is still relevant. I think what helps to broaden your patent out and obviously, to test it is to do some prior art searching. The prior art searching really gives you a sense of how other people are thinking about the idea. Then you can see how your idea relates to those thoughts, that usually generates more use cases and more thoughts about how to broaden out the patent and where novelty really exists. 

I would encourage the patent portfolio managers to do some prior art searching and that’s where PQAI provides great opportunity as prior art search takes a lot of time. With PQAI you can do it very quickly. It is sort of a golden opportunity for patent portfolio managers to leverage it and ensure that either the ideas/inventions are new disclosures or continuations or their very best.

Sam Zellner | Patent Portfolio

The statistics and charts hereunder provide an insight into Sam’s patent portfolio, which has more than 200 issued and pending patents worldwide. 

Note – Patent families represent the count of total unique patent families. Patents represent the total number of records i.e. considering all the family members of an INPADOC (International Patent Documentation) family. The following four statistics are based on unique families count.

  • Technology Area And Patent Families Count –

Sam’s patent portfolio has 292 patents globally, which belong to 91 unique patent families. He has worked in many areas of the tech industry but mainly, most of his inventions are related to electronic communication techniques and instruments. The count of inventions in this and related domains is 86.

The chart below details the areas of technology in which his patents have been filed:

Sam Zellner Patent Portfolio
  • Technology Through The Years – 

This statistic is based on Sam Zellner’s patent filings periodically, indicating as to how many patents are filed year by year and in which area of technology:

Sam Zellner Patent Portfolio
  • Inventions – 

Sam Zellner has patents in 91 different patent families within his patent portfolio. He is an individual inventor of 17 and a co-inventor of the rest of the 74 core patents:

Sam Zellner Patent Portfolio
  • Patent Assignment 

Sam Zellner is affiliated with AT&T Inc, putting AT&T on the top of the list of patent assignments by Sam for his inventions. However, there are a few more names of other assignees in the list, in the cases where Sam’s inventions have been re-assigned by AT&T and all these patents were filed by AT&T. All the subdivisions of AT&T as AT&T Inc have been considered.

Sam Zellner Patent Portfolio

The term “Patent Counts” represents the counts of individual patents filed in various countries, irrespective of the patent family. The following statistic is based on the total number of patents in the portfolio: 

  • Patent Filing Worldwide

The following graph shows Sam Zellner’s patent filing for inventions worldwide. Majority of the patents have been filed in the United States of America. Also, there are 10 patents, in which the applications have been filed before the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) & the European Patent Office (EPO).

Sam Zellner Patent Portfolio

The Key Takeaways

Sam Zellner has decades of experience as an inventor and a patent portfolio manager. Sam’s advice to the inventors is to think broadly and expand the idea beyond your first use case. Sam Zellner recommends the inventors to keep an open mind and observe how the people are reacting to the idea, when shared with people in a protected way and also motivates them to not get discouraged in case their idea is not novel. He encourages the patent portfolio managers as well as the inventors to do some prior art searching, to find how other inventors are approaching the same problem.