Like countless others before and after him, Eric Giler came to Boston for school and never left.
In his case, it was Harvard Business School at the dawn of the 1980s, and within two years of getting his MBA he had cofounded Brooktrout Technology, an early maker of voice-mail and fax-to-e-mail systems. After the Needham company was acquired in 2005, Giler figured he’d take the typical post-buyout route — serve on some boards and do some investing.
But he ended up back in the startup world, including stints running Groove Mobile (mobile music downloads) and WiTricity (wireless electric charging).
Now the veteran entrepreneur is starting a new venture, and it is something of a departure for him. Giler is heading up Ciprun Global, the new US unit of Ciprun Group, a Chinese firm that handles patent, trademark, and copyright applications for domestic and international companies.
Ciprun Global will cater to US intellectual property holders — inventors, corporations, universities — seeking to protect their work in China.
“This is not a technology play,” Giler, 63, said in a recent telephone interview. “Friends ask, ‘What are you doing? Aren’t they the enemy?’ ”
His friends are referring, of course, to the long history of US companies having their intellectual property ripped off by Chinese competitors. It’s one of the major sticking points in the tense negotiations between the United States and China aimed at reaching a broad trade agreement.
But Giler said that Chinese government has worked hard to create an intellectual property protection system.
For example, China’s patent office approved 1.38 million applications in 2017, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, a special agency of the United Nations. That was a record number, surpassing the United States, which had 607,000 approvals, and Japan, with 318,500.
Moreover, Chinese royalty payments for the use of US intellectual property rose more than 11-fold to $8.3 billion in 2017 from $755 million in 1999.
“In just a few decades, China has constructed an IP system, encouraged homegrown innovation, joined the ranks of the world’s IP leaders — and is now driving worldwide growth in IP filings,” the WIPO’s director general, Francis Gurry, said in December.
The data don’t show the losses to US companies from intellectual property theft in China, or the expense of defending patents in court. But Giler said that US companies suing for patent infringement in China win 90 percent of their cases.
In the United States, nearly all intellectual property filings are handled by lawyers. When US companies want to apply in China or other countries, their lawyers typically refer them to attorneys in that country.
If they file at all, that is.
“US companies tend not to file in China,” Giler said. “It’s expensive. And once you get a patent, it’s not clear what you get with it.”
The biggest expense for applying in China is translation, which can run anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, according to Giler. He estimates that Ciprun’s scale in China will allow it to cut total costs for US clients by two-thirds.
He said Ciprun Global sees US attorneys as potential partners in helping US IP holders file their applications in China.
“We need to get out in front of the law firms, and drive demand by calling on larger companies and universities,” said Giler, who has so far hired two people for the US effort, which after a soft launch is today officially hanging out its shingle.
One reason the Ciprun Global opportunity appealed to Giler is his direct experience with the costs and frustrations of defending intellectual property rights. While at Brooktrout, he said, a competitor copied a key piece of the company’s fax system and began undercutting it on price.
“It took us about a year and half to get an injunction,” he said. “And that was considered very fast.”
He conceded that China is still the Wild West when it comes to US businesses operating there.
“Yes, there has been massive infringement,” he said. “But there is a way to be part of the solution on this.”
Ciprun’s US push is just ramping up. It remains to be seen whether US IP lawyers will see Giler as a partner or competitor.