ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Picture this: Kodak — the company that invented the first digital camera in 1975, and developed the photo technology inside most cellphones and digital devices — is in the midst of the worst crisis in its 131-year history.
Now, caught between ruin and revival, Eastman Kodak Co. is reaching deeply into its intellectual treasure chest, betting that a big cash infusion from the sale of 1,100 digital-imaging inventions will see it through a transition that has raised the specter of bankruptcy.
Kodak popularized photography more than a century ago. It marketed the world’s first flexible roll film in 1888 and transformed picture-taking into a mass commodity with the $1 Brownie camera in 1900. But for too long the world’s biggest film manufacturer stayed firmly focused on its 20th-century cash cow, and failed to capitalize quickly on its new-wave know-how in digital photography.
As a result, Kodak has been playing catch-up. Pummeled by Wall Street over its dwindling cash reserves — and its stumbling attempts to reinvent itself as a profitable player in digital imaging and printing — Kodak has been hawking the digital patents since July. Many financial analysts foresee the portfolio fetching $2 billion to $3 billion.
But others think Kodak can haul in far more than that — and carry it off within a few months. That’s because patents have become highly valuable to digital device makers who want to protect themselves from intellectual property lawsuits. In July, an alliance made up of Apple and Microsoft purchased a raft of patents from Nortel Networks for $4.5 billion. A month later, Google bought Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, in part, to gain hold of the company’s 17,000 patents.
“It’s pocket change for Google and Apple to go pay $3-or-$4-or-$5 billion for these patents,” said Christopher Marlett, chief executive of MDB Capital, an investment bank based in Santa Monica, Calif., that specializes in intellectual property. “There is an all-out nuclear war right now for global dominance in smartphones, tablets and mobile devices, and Kodak has one of the largest cache of weapons sitting there.”
Kodak’s grim financial picture should become clearer when it reports third-quarter results Thursday.