Patents Influence ITW Acquisitions

Article excerpt

Byline: Moushumi Anand Medill News Service

The zipped plastic bags, high-definition laminated floor tiles and plastic carriers for soda and beer cans may not catch your attention, but these everyday items were all invented by the 700 business units of the Glenview-based Illinois Tool Works Inc.

"Innovation doesn't necessarily involve big ideas," David Speer, CEO of the company, told students of the Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science during a visit in May. "Sometimes it's just a matter of doing the small things a little bit better."

Illinois Tool Works, which is ranked among the top 100 patent recipients in the United States, had more than 16,000 unexpired patents and pending patent applications worldwide in 2004; and 156 employees held patents on inventions for products with commercial success.

One of its latest innovations is a heater for automobile seats. It's made from conductive ink printed on a thin, flexible film of plastic, and it costs only half as much as today's toaster-coil devices. This product is being used by Nissan Motor Co.

Many of ITW's innovative products were obtained through acquisitions of small companies that created them. A recent acquisition of Techsspray LP and a partnership with Dealer Technology Group of Highlands Ranch, Colo., is one example.

ITW, which has 50,000 employees in 48 countries, has averaged 28 deals a year over the past decade and many of them were driven by attractive patents with development potential.

"The first thing is the product. If we feel that we can't improve the product (of the company we acquire), we will walk away from the deal," said John Brooklier, vice president of investor relations.

For instance, Techspray in Amarillo, Texas, was acquired by ITW in January. Techspray formulates, blends and packages more than 600 products. These products are used primarily for protection, cleaning, coating, anti-static protection or lubrication during production, quality control and field service operations. …