Mundi Fomukong of Enovsys: “Keep design and interfaces simple to use”

As you grow your business, treat everyone respectfully even when there is a disagreement — most likely, paths will cross again in key settings. Foster great partnerships, as needed, and always listen and pay attention to other opinions — don’t assume you always have the best solution. Important to keep costs under control and share risk early. Lastly, find […]

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As you grow your business, treat everyone respectfully even when there is a disagreement — most likely, paths will cross again in key settings. Foster great partnerships, as needed, and always listen and pay attention to other opinions — don’t assume you always have the best solution. Important to keep costs under control and share risk early. Lastly, find the time to directly touch or give care to someone you don’t know.

As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mundi Fomukong, an inventor from California, USA, and the founder of Enovsys LLC.

Fomukong is a wireless systems architect and holds a Master of Science in Electronic System Design, specializing on aircraft electronic systems, from Cranfield College of Aeronautics, Cranfield University, UK. Enovsys was founded in 2003 and develops mobile phone system technology. The company owns key patented technology worldwide, in the area of location tracking, location disclosure and privacy, geofencing and proximity determination, and mobile banking.

For at least a quarter of a century, Fomukong has not only designed and implemented cutting edge technology, but deeply involved in protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights. Fomukong is highly skilled technology professional, who routinely prosecutes patents in the US, Europe, Canada, China, Singapore, Australia, India and Japan. He also actively supports and coordinates intellectual property litigation efforts and strategy within the US and Germany.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you.

I reside in Los Angeles with my family and was born in Cameroon, West Africa. I attended college in England and moved to Southern California in the 1990s. I enjoy designing and developing mobile phone system technology — putting pieces together and drilling down to the nitty gritty. However, for circumstances beyond my control, I routinely find myself in the business of litigating intellectual property claims, relating to technology we create.

The nature of our business requires working around the clock to support local and international efforts. As one of the very few Africans involved in a business that hedges on next generation mobile phone system design, coupled with global intellectual property law and business, the experience has been unparalleled to none. On the surface, everyone is well educated, so fair play is expected. However, under the hood, as it concerns unauthorized use of technology and sales of large corporations, be ready for a never-ending “bruising” dog fight.

I remain grateful to my wife, kids, family, and friends for accommodating my schedule. To keep up, I exercise regularly and enjoy an iced shaken Martini cocktail at the end of a long day. Spiritually, I come from a generation of Presbyterians and attend our local church in Los Angeles, where I routinely serve as a deacon.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Just before completing my undergraduate degree in Electronics with Computing in England, I saw a Cranfield College of Aeronautics flyer posted outside our laboratory. I took a moment to read up about the college and decided to place a phone call using, at the time, a British Telecom pay phone box. I was impressed by a graduate program Cranfield offered in Electronic System Design, specializing in flight electronics. Even though my application was late, I persistently called the executive assistant at the college, Mary Shields. Eventually the head of the college took notice and offered me a spot to join the program. Attending that college gave me a deep understanding of how electronic systems are designed, specifically integration of hardware and software components.

After moving to the US, I met my co-inventor Chesney, now deceased, at a local church in Los Angeles. He was a Californian businessman who travelled around a bit and had lived in England, I believe in the 1960s. We were from different generations, but became friends, and the rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Back then when we started to develop mobile phone system technology, phones were mostly used for voice calls and pagers were used for text messages. Existing mobile phone system platforms were proprietary — as a guide, Apple and Google were not even in the mobile phone system market at the time.

However, as Telecom and Software companies had not synchronized their technologies to communicate with each other, we really believed we could talk to both sides to provide common interfaces to leverage a location-based services technology we had developed and much more. As we owned the intellectual property, we had plenty of discussions and reviews with key players in the industry. Interest was very high, but the cycle was pretty much the same — that is, after every successful internal review by technology and business departments, decision was pushed to legal and eventually outside counsel got involved. At that point, everyone stopped taking our calls until the company deployed the system. Initially, we were awed, but after being in the business for decades, we were just plain naïve or maybe stupid to believe large corporations would deal fairly…They don’t…

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As reflected above, our belief that large telecom corporations will deal fairly in a technology transfer and licensing venture was a mistake. First, we had patent offices and examiners around the world review our technology extensively on multiple occasions. The process of prosecuting intellectual property claims in the US, Canada, Europe, India, China and other countries in Asia and Africa seem to be fair and well established and coordinated by designated representatives in each jurisdiction.

At that point, we thought that having your technology reviewed in multiple patent offices around the world by different examiners would translate to immediate licensing success, we were wrong. Little did we know litigation is almost always required and is a risky and brutal business. Little did we know that the patents granted to us by patent offices worldwide could be perceived differently depending on the court and rules a judge chooses to apply. As a guide, a court could pick a result and then look for a law to justify the outcome. As judicial orders are concocted by humans, hard not to hold your breath.

We saw that over and over again, same issues previously prosecuted and settled in Patent Offices globally ending up with a different result depending on the courtroom, judge and legal tool applied. At some point, it becomes not even about the intellectual property you actually own, but what a court will allow you to present. In the US, for instance, even after we were successful in getting a verdict against Sprint affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, I finally understood, in a subsequent matter, why lawyers would shop for jurisdictions that are “supposedly” patent friendly to litigate their cases. Mind you, the process of protecting intellectual property in most parts of the world has been streamlined and governed by rules and conventions that are known and proven to be fair. However, litigating the same intellectual property is a pricey and subjective process that depends on when, where, who and which legal tool is ultimately selected to apply at every turn.

Having been in the middle of technology design, intellectual property prosecution and litigation, lesson learned is that the litigation process can be streamlined such that it is also efficient for all. However, as it falls back on politicians, aligned to different business interests, to craft these laws to protect their interest (which is rarely that of the general public), very unlikely we see fair rules enacted anytime soon.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I met up with a firm in London to explore technology licensing opportunities in the UK, leading us to wind up in another matter in Germany in 2011. The German matter, relating to Deutsche Telekom, subsequently ended in intense litigation causing us to shuttle between Los Angeles and Germany for about ten years. It has been nothing but crazy as Deutsche Telekom is 31% owned by the German government.

To summarize, every essential lower court decision we received was concocted outside of the pleadings of the parties and injected “last minute” by the judges. As we found out in the German litigation process, German patent law supports use of an administrative procedure “Principle of Investigation” that gives the patent court the right to investigate any topic related to a case, even when not pleaded/submitted by the parties. However, when this procedure was applied by the court, it was only during trial to inject an off-the-cuff patent revocation decision in favor of one litigant, Deutsche Telekom, after it fell short in its pleadings. As a result, the reasoning backing up the decision was only disclosed later in a judgement — too bad, limited chance to argue back. However, as these were lower court rulings, we always had the opportunity to appeal to the German Supreme Court. As a matter of fact, we went to the Supreme Court twice in nine years to resolve these types of decision.

Even though the German Supreme Court was unable to uphold any of the reasoning concocted by the lower court to revoke our patent, it eventually moved in a July 9th, 2020 hearing to create its own reasoning, again, out of the pleadings of the parties, to claw back our intellectual property rights in Germany. Clearly a grotesque violation of due process. As a result, we filed a “Gehoersruege” motion in December of 2020 asking the court to not violate the right of the litigants to be heard on a pertinent subject matter introduced for the first time in a judgement.

As discussed earlier, these legal tools are there for courts to use when further investigation is required. However, in our proceeding, courts repeatedly used this tactic to claw back our intellectual property rights after clearly determining that Deutsche Telekom fell short in its pleading. What makes this unconscionable is that the Supreme Court resulted to using the same tactic even after it concluded, like all the patent offices worldwide who reviewed the same issue, that our core patented feature was missing from every reference that existed before it. However, by using this “Principle of Investigation” tool, the court, even when unable to find our patented missing feature in prior art references, was able to conjure an “obviousness” decision without any feedback from the litigants. In our most recent “Gehoersruege” motion filed to the court, we are now left to beg the Supreme Court to at least hear us on an issue that clearly came to be because of a blatant disregard of the right to be heard, which may amount to an abuse of judicial power. However, we remained confident that if our right to be heard on these issues is preserved, the result will be no different from what patent offices worldwide, including the European Patent Office, had asserted.

Deutsche Telekom is 31% owned by the German government. As you would notice, the difference here is the injection of a procedural maneuver, the last minute at trial and later in a judgment, to exclude one party from making their case.

Despite being advised such motions are rarely approved by the Supreme Court, it was easy to give up. Ultimately, we did not give up because the underlying circumstance warrants a fair resolution in order to maintain integrity in a court system that prides itself in protecting property rights. Absent, such a move to request a resolution, anyone could perceive this as some form of intellectual property heist.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Apart from family, friends and other colleagues, our business ended up relying on the services of law firms to stay afloat. As a minority developer with no initial financial backing, very few firms looked our way when we started. Irrespective, the Lyon & Lyon LLP partners in Los Angeles stepped up and effectively guided us in the 1990s, even continuing to do so after the firm closed. Also, Dovel & Luner LLP and the other firms who later joined to support our efforts globally have been helpful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Remain humble and have faith. Having served routinely as a deacon at our church has helped a great deal in preserving humility while keeping faith alive. At the end of the day, giving care to others makes one understand we are all the same, same problems, same issues to deal with, irrespective of public posturing. Eventually, we all get sick, need care from one another, and we will move on at a time beyond our control. With that in mind, humility and faith eradicates the fear aspect in a business where harassment is constantly employed as a tool to drive settlement.

On that note, I usually resign to the fact that someone is always much worse off than you are, so do your best to keep business going.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

These issues have always been around, even before our generation. The difference today is there have been tremendous advancements in telecommunication technology, offering faster and cheaper mediums for anyone to be heard and seen instantly.

Are we going to solve it by a click? Certainly not. I think minds also need to change and the more we travel and are globally exposed, the better for us all.

However, as we live in a world where not so many are exposed to other cultures and fear is applied by the powerful to score political points and secure votes, progress will remain slow as it benefits a certain class if it stays that way.

However, unlike any other country in the world, the US at least remains great as it deals with race issues head on and continues to make progress in this area.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

You understand your employees, partners, and customers better. We live in an ever-changing world, and we are more dependent on one another than ever before. If a company chooses to remain in the past, like old Telecom, their market share will inevitably fizzle out- it’s a no brainer.

As an African American, our work demands we interact with key professionals across the globe. Our team and background made it seamless for us to venture out and coordinate with partners overseas. There is simply no way we would have survived by relying on resources in the US alone — zero chance.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Access to capital, so blacks can create and support their own business initiatives. As they become more successful, more companies will chase them for leadership positions in tech.

I started off financing my projects the old fashion way, with hard-earned savings. Even though our company owned key intellectual property assets that were relevant to the implementation of a location-based services platform, rather than work with us, most chose to drive us out of business in order to get ahead as they perceived we did not have the needed resources to fight back. If we had sufficient access to capital, it would have been a different story.

However, even after we were able to put together a team of professionals to help us, challenges still persist, which require a change in mindset. For instance, I travelled to a meeting that was arranged with other professionals and was the last to arrive at the conference room. I walked in and sat down and someone who had not met me before was still asking for the manager of the business. The problem is: there was only one sit left in the room and I was rightfully sitting on it. A few eyes rolled before the meeting started. Assuming blacks were represented in the business, it is unlikely this would have happened.

On another note, there are global challenges on race that may not be solved in our lifetime. For instance, I specifically coordinated our internal design and patent prosecution activities globally. That meant working with law firms around the world and understanding laws and rules to advance our case. However, even after we were successful in prosecuting our cases in front of different Patent Offices and Examiners across the world on similar issues, litigation itself proved challenging. For example, in a case in Munich, Germany, it was requested that we appear at a pre-trial hearing in 2012 by the court. An already prepared case summary was read out during that court session, and it was in line with how we understood the case issues. So, we happily left back to the US to wait for the trial in a few months. In between that time, nothing changed. We flew back to the trial months later and were told by the same court and judges who had presided over the pre-trial hearing that our technology did not apply to cellular phone systems. This erratic change of events was in stark contrast to the view of every patent office worldwide and even the court’s initial position. Most of all, this twist eventually stalled our German infringement case against Deutsche Telekom for eight years. It was only recently, December 2020, in a Supreme Court judgement when it was made clear that every mobile device that could be called out via a telephone number to respond was in scope — this clearly does not exclude cellular phones, like we had known all along.

Again, as there was no change in facts between the 2012 Munich pre-trial hearing and the actual trial, it begs the question whether the decision to skew the case at the last minute to exclude cellular telephones really had any legal merit (as we received confirmation eight years later it was unmerited) other than to thwart the property rights associated with a black tech executive from moving forward? As a result, a silent suggestion routinely pops up in conversations: why don’t you find another face for the business as this type of venture is not cut for minorities? My answer is always simple, NO.

We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

We develop next generation mobile phone system technology to improve consumer experiences.

Irrespective of the legal maneuver injected in Germany to claw our intellectual property rights, the Supreme Court in essence confirmed what patent examiners globally had made clear: we were the first to actually implement the system covered by our intellectual property. Today, that technology positions mobile devices via way of GPS and selectively provides location-based services to cell phone users.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are a creative business, so think differently. As our mindset is tuned to look forward, we focus on mobile technology designs for tomorrow’s market, i.e., services that have not been used before by anyone.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we are. Most are related to mobile phone system technology.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

It happens to every business. Bottom line is stay creative and provide solutions that your customers need. There is always a possibility of looking elsewhere, such as exploring overseas markets.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Cater to the needs of your customers and then pass on essential product knowledge to the sales team. Most important, hire the right sales staff.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Study your industry and be the first to design products that are required by your clients/customers. Naturally, as the industry salivates to consume your products, ensure you get intellectual property protection — that way they don’t crush you up in the process.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Keep design and interfaces simple to use. As a creative technology business, ensure your clients can easily comprehend why your offerings differ from the rest. If they need your features, rest assured they will get it one way or another.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

It’s all about giving value to a client/customer. If your solution serves them well, they will stay on board. So, good to always engage clients while seeking creative solutions to better serve their needs. Adding intellectual property protection should not be ignored.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

As you grow your business, treat everyone respectfully even when there is a disagreement — most likely, paths will cross again in key settings. Foster great partnerships, as needed, and always listen and pay attention to other opinions — don’t assume you always have the best solution. Important to keep costs under control and share risk early. Lastly, find the time to directly touch or give care to someone you don’t know.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A movement that incentivizes young people to travel the world and learn other cultures prior to going to college or picking up their first job. A lot of the ills of the world, racism, tribalism, islamophobia, antisemitism, etc., are solely due to the lack of being exposed to other cultures and induced by fear.

Secondly, I would like to inspire a movement that supports minority and underprivileged students to get into law school, particularly intellectual property law. Their presence is needed in the business.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Inventors need help to protect their work. From experience, there are effective ways to stop intellectual property heist and abuse. It doesn’t happen just in China, like we are always told, as we see it in Western court rooms as well. Litigation rules and procedures, particularly with regards to intellectual property enforcement can be substantially improved.

In that regard, anyone responsible for crafting US and/or global IP enforcement policy will be a good start.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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