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Today, it’s a pretty safe bet that anywhere you see the newest, sleekest, flattest television hanging on a wall, you’ll also see a Samsung logo underneath its ultra-high-definition, 4k picture. It’s also become hard to avoid the company’s ubiquitous smartphones, which, after selling 307.6 million units in 2014, became the best-selling cellular phones in the world.

And that’s just the beginning. Soon, you may also be taking Samsung-branded prescription drugs, consuming Samsung energy drinks, wearing Samsung make-up, and – if the company continues to pursue its manifest destiny of conquering every technological category in the world – orbiting the Earth in a Samsung spaceship.

It’s an ambitious idea to say the least. But, just 25 years ago Samsung was a second-tier electronics and consumer appliances manufacturer operating largely in the shadows of companies like Sony and RCA. Fifty years before that, the company was founded as a regional exporter of dried fish and flour from South Korea to China.

Samsung’s path from exporting to textiles to electronics to, now, leading the world in virtually every category of new technological innovation, has been marked by a combination of raw ambition, constant innovation and one of the most aggressive patent portfolio strategies on the planet.

According to the findings in the Thomson Reuters 2015 State of Innovation study, Samsung ranks among the top 25 patent assignees in nine of the 12 categories analyzed. That means that the company you know today as a consumer electronics and telecom giant also has one of the world’s largest patent portfolios in categories like aerospace, automotive, biotech, domestic appliances, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and semiconductors.

How did Samsung get to this point and what can we glean from its current portfolio to forecast what’s in store for the future of this innovation giant?

“As a company, to be innovative I think you have to stay nimble, be lean, and constantly in touch with your customers.”

Video: The Nature of Innovation: What is innovation?

From Exports to Electronics

Samsung has grown from humble beginnings, but always had lofty world aspirations. Originally founded in 1938 as an export business in Taegu, South Korea, the company’s leadership knew it had to diversify to make an impact. The first divergence from the exporting path came in the 1950s and 1960s, when Samsung began its foray down unexpected avenues such as life insurance and textiles. This unorthodox step set an agenda that still largely drives the Samsung of today: push boundaries into unfamiliar territories.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the modern day signature of the company – electronics – began to take shape, with the infancy stages of Samsung Electronics. Initially, its results were underwhelming. In 1970, the company produced its first black-and-white television, six years after the major U.S. TV networks started to broadcast their prime time programming in color. Samsung began a more steady push on electronics in the 1980s, with the production of consumer products like personal computers, VCRs, and tape recorders, as well as components – such as memory and hard drives – for use in personal computers. Its growth, however, was modest at best.



Samsung’s saving grace was its willingness to stretch the boundaries with research and development into more eclectic avenues. While the ‘70s at Samsung became about televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators, the decade also saw the expansion of the company into petrochemicals, which would eventually lead to a partnership with BP in 1989 to form Samsung BP Chemicals. It’s in that same spirit that the firm sprinted forward development of one of the first Internet-ready phones and a full fleet of digital TVs, both ready to hit the market in 1999. These two products, which would foster the company’s most significant hallmark in its existence to date, were far ahead of their time, in stark contrast to bringing its black and white TV to market just three decades earlier.

Now, as Samsung Smart TVs are mounted on the walls of homes across the country, and a Samsung Galaxy sits in the pocket of virtually every non-iPhone user, Samsung has positioned itself as the industry standard, and it’s not stopping there. Diversity in its patent portfolio is what turned the tide for Samsung, and it hasn’t forgotten its roots. Investment continues into solving some of the world’s most pressing needs, both existing and imagined.

Outpacing the World, While Covering Its Bases

Samsung’s massive patent push is not simply concentrated in its core areas of marketplace dominance. While the Korean giant is pacing the world in categories one might expect, it’s also planning for future diversification in its consumer offerings.

According to the Thomson Reuters State of Innovation analysts, Samsung is among the top 25 patent assignees in nine of the 12 categories they evaluate. Not coming as much of a surprise, the company takes the top spot in Computing & Peripheral s, Telecomm, and Semiconductors. But it also ranks 10th in Aerospace, Domestic Appliances and Medical Devices; 12th in Automotive; 14th in Biotech; and 17th in Pharmaceuticals.

A deeper dive into some of these categories reveals the potential future for Samsung. Of the company’s 100-plus basic biotech patents, inventions include cancer treatments, gene-sequencing, biosensors and biochips for disease testing and diagnosis. Even green chemistry – such as biosynthesis of petrochemicals and biofuels – makes the cut under Samsung’s biotech holdings.

In pharmaceuticals, 67%, or 137 or the 198 basic patents Samsung holds in the category, are rooted in biotech, covering the aforementioned cancer treatments, gene sequencing and sample testing and analysis. Another 65 unique inventions in the pharma category relate to pharmaceutical compositions for more commonplace ailments such as fatigue or hangover treatment, medical devices for diabetes treatment, formulations for tablets and capsules, biosensors and micro-pumps, and the use of graphene in drug delivery, biosensors and other diagnostic test equipment.

Whether it’s curing cancer, curbing the effect of global warming or finding a better way to recover from a night of imbibing, these patents foreshadow some of businesses that Samsung wants to be in. Peeling back the layers of Samsung’s patent portfolio, it is clear the company sees itself as a central part of every consumer touch point, from the mundane: taking a Samsung hangover pill while you tweet about your night on the latest iteration of the Galaxy, to the sublime: being prescribed a Samsung cancer treatment after having the disease detected on one of the company’s biosensors. Given this wide footprint and world beating aspiration, it’s hard to imagine the company will look the same 10 to 20 years from now.

Samsung co-CEO J.K. Shin summed up the company’s philosophy at the launch of the organization’s new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones: "These products are the result of a simple philosophy. It comes to two words: Relentless innovation."

That attitude resonates far past the reach of Samsung’s telecom holdings, and it signifies a clear mandate across the entire company to build a continuum of offerings that can push the company into the next decade and beyond.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Critics of the Samsung philosophy may argue that the firm is spreading itself too thin. But because of its extensive commitment to R&D, Samsung is well equipped to maintain its diverse portfolio. For example, in 2014 Samsung invested a total of $13.8 billion on R&D, with approximately one-quarter of the company’s employees working in this area. Coupled with its Open Innovation program, which culls ideas from both inside and outside the firm on its path to new ideas and inventions, Samsung leaves no stone unturned in the patenting strategy, and is rewarded with fresh, new ideas, even outside its core competency.

“The answer to why Samsung is so innovative… is that it is heavily invested in its people, it goes in search of special talent wherever it can find it,” innovation analyst Haydn Shaughnessy wrote in Forbes. “It targets its innovations towards specific competitors and patents that it wants to overhaul (as Apple did under Steve Jobs); and it has an innovation culture based on extensive training, repeatable methodology and creative elite formation, backed by the highest levels of management.”

That idyllic picture reads like every company’s mission statement regarding the ‘I’ word. But Samsung hasn’t amassed its holdings without getting its hands dirty. An expansive portfolio like Samsung’s is a massive undertaking that not only requires the due diligence to ensure wise investments, but also the willingness to protect an invention when it gets to market. Part of that is an aggressive litigation strategy that has seen Samsung go to great lengths to safeguard against the theft of its IP. In 2013, it created its own patent firm to help, mostly thanks to the lessons it learned on the battlefield of the “smartphone patent wars.”

The wars have waged on for the better part of a decade, resulting in wins: such as a 2013 victory to halt the sale of AT&T iPhones and iPads, as well as some resounding losses: most notably one that saw Samsung pay out a $1 billion verdict to Apple. The two rivals recently put down their swords on an international setting, thanks to a blistering pace of litigation that was characterized in the June 2014 issue of Vanity Fair:

“No one can claim a total victory in the global litigation wars. In South Korea, a court ruled that Apple had infringed two Samsung patents, while Samsung had violated one of Apple’s. In Tokyo, a court rejected an Apple patent claim and ordered it to pay Samsung’s court costs. In Germany, a court ordered a direct sales ban on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, ruling that it too closely resembled Apple’s iPad 2. In Britain, a court ruled in favor of Samsung, declaring that its tablets were “not as cool” as the iPad, and unlikely to confuse consumers. A California jury found that Samsung had violated Apple patents for the iPhone and iPad, awarding more than a billion dollars in damages—an amount that the judge later ruled had been miscalculated by the jury. In the debate over setting the damages, a Samsung lawyer said they were not disputing that the company had indeed taken ‘some elements of Apple’s property.’

One person close to Apple said that the endless fighting has been a drain on the company, both emotionally and financially.”

But the lesson learned in these contests with Apple have given Samsung a roadmap to sounder IP. And as it continues to diversify into new sectors, Samsung will now be able to avoid any missteps that will result in a loss of precious resources.

Anticipating the Next Evolution

A great innovation is often the next logical step in the development of an existing design. But other times, it emerges from the out-of-nowhere; a byproduct of human imagination and a corporate culture that breeds new ideas. Fortunately for Samsung, it’s amassed an innovation portfolio that gives it the capability for both, acting as the ultimate IP chameleon.

In this high stakes game of chance, Samsung continues to reinvent itself, over and over and over again. Like a roulette player with enough chips to play virtually every number and both colors, Samsung is ready for the game. Its diversification means it has nearly the entire wheel covered. Where the ball lands may be a moot point when a portfolio is as broad as Samsung’s is.