Attorney Fred Mau digs deep to find Toyota’s best inventions
Bright Ideas -- Fred Mau has helped increase Toyota’s North America patent count to more than 1,540,
compared to 28 when he came aboard in 2006. Photos by Rex Curry
As Toyota’s in-house intellectual property attorney, Frederick Mau has seen it all: Flying cars, cloaking devices, a wearable aid for the blind. He’s even patented a bump on the Solara convertible.
More on that later.
By ensuring that no good idea goes unchecked, Mau has helped Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) do what once seemed impossible: Rank No. 1 in the U.S. for patents among auto makers for the past three years.
Toyota wasn’t always so adept at harvesting innovative ideas from team members. When Mau came aboard in 2006, Toyota had only 28 U.S. patents to its name. This year the cumulative total number of patents is expected to exceed 1,600, beating last year’s count of 1,540.
“Before, we used to sit back and wait for people to submit ideas,” he says. “We’d have the division leaders set targets, which worked because what gets measured gets done, but it wasn’t the best way to reflect true activity.”
Mau set out to change the way engineers viewed the patenting process. Many considered it time-consuming and, surprisingly, felt their ideas weren’t novel enough to make the cut.
“A lot of engineers are very smart at working on new things, but I don’t think they give themselves enough credit,” he says. “I’d sit down with them and say ‘actually, we can get a patent on that.’ Many of the people we worked with early on at TTC (now TMNA R&D) are now some of our biggest proponents.”
Mau frequently visits with TMNA R&D and Toyota Research Institute of North America (TRINA) in Michigan, Production Engineering in Kentucky and manufacturing plants to shake the trees for ideas. He sets up annual meetings to discuss milestone and key times, and has internal advocates tracking intellectual property.
“There’s so much research going on, I need to go out and talk to people and see for myself what they have working,” he says, noting that the majority of patents come from R&D, but with Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and Toyota Connected (TC) ramping up, he expects even more ideas to feed the pipeline.
In this job, timing is everything.
“If you implement something or start using something commercially before filing a patent application, chances are we’ve already lost our patent rights,” Mau says. “So, we need to file patent applications before the inventions are published or before they are put into a vehicle. If we’re working on an invention over the course of a year and we have a competitor that’s been working on it the last couple of months, if they file a patent before us, we’re going to have to license it from them or they could potentially stop us for using it.”
In every potential filing, Mau looks for two things: Is it something that hasn’t been done before? And is there a benefit for Toyota?
Which brings us to the bump patent for the Solara convertible. This one stands out for Mau because it illustrates that not all good patents have to be complicated. In 2006-2007, engineers Paxton Williams and Greg Bernas were seeking a solution to prevent rain from drenching a driver’s lap when a window was opened. He developed a convertible top weather strip, or bump, that redirected water off the car. No more wet pants. In 2008, U.S Patent No. 7,438,344 was approved.
“Nobody had a bump like that in the channel, and it had clear benefits,” Mau says. “Paxton and Greg were really surprised that it was allowed.”
Personal Patent -- In 2016, Mau received a patent for his tunable metamaterials idea.
Mau knows what it’s like to think like an engineer because he is one — he has an undergrad degree in chemical engineering from Michigan State University. Prior to joining Toyota, the Michigan native worked as an intellectual property attorney for an R&D company specializing in alternative energy, and spent some time at General Motors.
“When Fred came on in 2006 we challenged him to create a different type of program that would be more across the operation so everybody would understand we need a product protection mindset,” says Assistant General Counsel Deborah Greenman, TMNA-Intellectual Property. “He really understands the technology and he gets in front of it.”
When Mau talks to inventors, he tries to ask questions that make their ideas broader and more valuable for Toyota. During one of those conversations, he made a suggestion to a TRINA researcher that resulted in two patents of his own. If you see Mau around TMNA headquarters, ask him about his tunable metamaterials idea.
With the explosion of electric, hydrogen, autonomous and connected car technologies, the competition among automakers has never been fiercer. And Mau wants Toyota to be recognized not just as a car company, but as “a huge contributor to innovation in North America.”
“My goal is that 100 percent of new ideas are submitted to us,” he says. “If we do that, then I’m happy.”
By Karen Nielsen