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From the invention of the lightbulb to the invention of sliced bread, driverless cars, wearable devices, and so on, we always want to know what is going to be introduced next. Nowhere is this more prevalent than within corporations, where monitoring the competition’s innovation can be the difference between securing your market position and getting railroaded by a surprise, disruptive force.

Sometimes we are lost in how to look at a competitor’s innovation activities. Here is a cheat sheet of the top 5 questions you should be asking about your competitors.

1. What are my competitor’s homegrown technologies?

Companies invest in their own research and development. From their successes come patents. A patent is a government license that grants the holder exclusive rights to a process, design or new invention for a set length of time. By looking at homegrown technologies, we can uncover the internal discoveries of a company and develop a prediction of the competitor’s innovation plan. You can forecast the sectors they are investing in and the new markets they are attempting to enter.

A Google patent was published on December 3, 2015 for a wearable device that tests diabetics’ blood sugar levels. If you are in the global diabetics market, which represents $45 billion in revenue, you might have started getting ready for a disruptive technology.

2. What technologies has my competitor purchased?

When a company cannot develop capabilities in-house, they might go on an acquisition hunt. Tracking the acquisitions of a company provides a tell-tale sign of that company’s strategic goals. Why buy a company if you don’t plan to compete in the space?

If you were tracking music technology, mapping software, or speech technology sectors in 2015, you would have seen that Apple is beefing up its capabilities by acquiring other players in the space. As someone who wants to track competition in these spaces, seeing Apple strengthen its position in these markets might be something to worry about.

3. What technologies has my competitor licensed?

When a company cannot build something from the ground up, and when it cannot buy it outright from another company, it’s only alternative might be to “license in” technology to achieve their goals. A license agreement is a written agreement between the owner of a property granting permission to another to use the property, or engage in activities related to the property. Identifying where a company is paying to use others’ technologies flags the markets where that company wants to have a presence.  There is not a more definitive sign that a competitor is investing in a space than seeing they have paid to license in a technology.

In 2015 Qualcomm licensed its technologies to a Chinese firm in order to launch devices in the Chinese market space. An already saturated market now has a new player with highly-valued, proven technology which might be something to worry about.

4. What brands is my competitor developing?

By looking at the brands a company is developing, one can better guess that company’s marketing strategies. A trademark is a symbol, word, phrase, logo, or combination that distinguishes a company’s product from others. Generally, a company invests in building brands where they have new capabilities, new products, and a plan to sell. If your competitor is spending money to build a brand, you can be sure a new product will be hitting the market soon.

If you are part of the billion dollar gaming world, you might have noticed that Sony filed for a trademark on “Let’s Play”, their online gaming genre which allows players to narrate their play. A further investment of this kind surely indicates Sony’s commitment to own this market.

5. Who’s playing in the sandbox?

Companies are secretive about their relationships with other companies, other market players, and their valuable inventors. By reviewing a company’s partners, we begin to uncover these prized relationships which help us predict strategy.

If your business is develop a self-driving car, you would have been keen to know that Google partnered with Ford to achieve a similar goal. Would having this information make you worry, change direction or plan for something new?

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