Patent Medicine Man

The former top inventor at IBM helps other companies capitalize on their intellectual property

by Julia Lynam

John Cronin, Nancy Edwards Cronin and Robert McDonaldJohn Cronin (center) is the founder, managing director, and chairman of ipCapital Group, an intellectual property consulting company with headquarters in Williston. With his wife, Nancy Edwards Cronin, principal partner, and Robert McDonald, managing director and president, he works with companies from start-ups to Fortune 500.

“I didn’t know that I was an inventor,” says John Cronin. “One day I was an engineer, the next I was an inventor! It’s very different. An engineer patents something that’s part of his work; an inventor’s going to blow something up to see how it works!” 

Cronin is managing director and chairman of ipCapital Group, a Williston firm that advises businesses on intellectual property strategy. He says he reached the position of running “one of the foremost intellectual property (IP) consulting companies in the world by getting on the bus,” — being always ready to move on and tackle something new. 

Born in Dorchester, Mass., and raised with four siblings by his widowed schoolteacher mother, Cronin graduated from Don Bosco Technical Institute in Boston and entered Northeastern University in 1973. He became frustrated with working his way through college, and after 18 months studying electronic engineering, he opted out to take a job with UPS. 

“I ended up running the morning hub of package loading and unloading,” he recalls. “Then I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a laborer, so I decided to come to Vermont.” Quite literally getting on the bus — his own VW bus — he moved to Burlington in 1977, and four years later found himself job-hunting, newly married, and brandishing three University of Vermont degrees: a bachelor’s in psychology and a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering. 

Engineer/scientist Carter Kaanta, now retired, recruited Cronin to IBM in Essex Junction in 1981. Charged with starting an advanced technology group to revolutionize microchip design, Kaanta reviewed 100 resumes and hired 12 engineers, including Cronin.

“John was the only master’s in the group; all the rest were Ph.Ds,” Kaanta remembers. “My manager didn’t want me to waste a position on him, but I’ve always been good at judging people, and I was certainly right with John — he vibrated! He was young and extremely vocal; we just clicked.”

Kaanta required every engineer to have three patents every year. “John was top of the class,” he says. “We were very successful, and a big part of it was that John was an idea machine — he’s also been a marvelous friend to me and other people.”

Cronin went beyond registering patents when he found a mentor in IBM inventor Bruce Bertelsen. “He explained to me the process of how you invent,” Cronin recalls. 

“He told me to make a list of problems that came up during the day. Then Bruce picked the one that looked impossible. Over the next month or two he and I actually invented something together. Bruce showed me how to document it, and he defended the idea before the review board. I would probably have never done it on my own.” 

By 1990, with more than 100 patents, Cronin had become IBM’s top inventor, and senior president Jack Kuehler gave him the task of re-energizing invention within the company. The resulting 15-person Patent Factory team expanded its reach throughout IBM’s microelectronics installations and helped the company become the country’s top patentee.

By Thanksgiving 1997, after nearly17 years with IBM, Cronin could see no new challenges ahead for him within the company and, inspired by his venture capitalist brother, Michael, he “got on the bus” again.

 “I was in a structured environment at IBM,” he says. “It was a career path that I’d gotten to the top of. I wanted to do something new but I couldn’t see what that was at IBM, so I just jumped.” 

With no firm plans, it was a bold step. By this time Cronin and his then-wife were living on Lake Arrowhead in Milton and had three young children. Jessica is 24, a UVM graduate, graphic artist, and mother of Cronin’s first grandchild. Erin, 21, is a hairdresser working in Williston, and Seth, 18, is a freshman at Northeastern University. 

Michael, the managing partner of Weston Presidio Capital, started referring clients with patent issues to him, and other companies invited him to speak on the art of invention. “I found myself in consulting and I started to literally make more money in two or three months than I could in a year at IBM!” Cronin exclaims.

At the peak of the dot-com boom in 2000, Cronin raised $17 million in venture capital to expand, growing his staff to 80 people and frequently taking equity from companies in payment. 

“I’d find companies that would hire my people and exchange their time for stock, which would go into my treasury; then if the company was successful the stock would be valuable.”

It was a very profitable idea — at first. Then the dot-com bubble burst and most of the companies he’d taken equity in became worthless.

Rachel Schwartz, Douglas Roth and Jed CahillThe firm maps a client’s patent literature and advises on licensing of its intellectual property. Kate Shore is a consulting manager, Chris Rose is a senior manager, and Jed Cahill is a consulting manager.

Cronin was “back on the bus.” He cut his staff to 10 and returned to standard consultancy, hiring Robert McDonald from Coopers & Lybrand to turn his company into a high-quality consulting practice. Today ipCG employs 25 people and specializes in identifying, managing, and leveraging intellectual property.

 “We’re world-renowned leaders in IP strategy.” Cronin explains. “We work with companies from all over the world, including 10 percent of the Fortune 500 companies and over 130 start-ups.” The firm’s client list ranges from local restaurants and small engineering companies to massive consumer product companies.

“The first thing we do is extract out all the inventions and present them to management to take to their patent attorneys,” says Cronin. “Then we map the patent literature to find out what the client company has and who are the other companies in the landscape. We might find one they want to sell the company to, and then they can consciously develop inventions and patents that might be desirable to a larger company.” 

The firm also advises on licensing of IP. “Clients come to us with a portfolio of patents and ask for help to make money out of it,” says Cronin. “We organize their patent estate, find potential buyers for them to negotiate with, and take a success fee. The combination of IP development and patent licensing is great for me because I never get tired of it; it’s always new technology and new people.” 

Kate Shore and Chris RoseThe firm’s client list ranges from local restaurants and small engineering companies to massive consumer product companies. Rachael Schwartz and Douglas Roth are senior managers.

The firm is weathering the economic downturn well. “Our business is a almost counter-cyclical,” Cronin says. “Companies are looking to make money out of patents that they own, or review patents to get rid of ones that don’t serve them. It doesn’t matter which technology you’re in, we can go there. Before people are laid off, we can go in and extract their inventions out of their heads.”

Companies are left behind, Cronin continues, because they don’t understand that for a very small investment they can have a huge patent estate. “I’ve sat in countless meetings and say, ‘We can help you,’ only to have them say they don’t have the 20, 40, 50 thousand to get started, so they don’t do it. I believe in “no company left behind.” 

Cronin’s vision has garnered some enthusiastic supporters. Robert G. Clarke, chancellor of Vermont State Colleges and chairman of the board of the electrical distribution company VELCO, met Cronin at IBM Burlington in the early 1980s, when VTC bid successfully to run the plant’s internal training program. The two men collaborated to help establish the Vermont Inventors Association, now InventVermont, with which Cronin is still involved.

“John helped me understand the art of inventing,” says Clarke. “He’s one of the most unique individuals I know. He has an unbelievable ability to think about all kinds of options. He needs three people to walk around with him to take down his ideas.

“How IP can give value to corporations is a unique approach, and it could be located anywhere in the country,” Clarke continues. “John’s chosen to locate it here, which means that his employees are contributing to the Vermont economy. It’s a true high-tech growth company, which is just what we need in Vermont. He gives back to the community in many ways.”

Those ways include serving on the boards of VELCO and other cutting-edge technology companies in the United States and Canada, and supporting his church. 

Cronin and his second wife, Nancy Edwards Cronin, married in 2006 and live in Jericho. Nancy is a principal partner with ipCG, which she joined in 2000 after 15 years consulting in environmental engineering. The Cronins are active in the Essex Alliance Church and are keen ballroom dancers and gourmet cooks. Cronin also has his own electronic engineering laboratory at home — “a dream come true,” he says, but dreaming is only part of it. Vision, dedication, and drive have contributed to Cronin’s achievements, together with his clear picture of the process and his enthusiastic desire to share it. 

“If I could come from UVM as an engineer, get trained in invention, and become IBM’s top inventor, then form a company and become well-known for IP strategy right here in Vermont — imagine if this kind of training in invention, IP, and leveraging could be available across the United States! There ought to be a fund available for small companies to help them invest in IP so they could patent things that would help them be worth hundreds of millions.”•