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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering > Using Patents to Track the Development of Nanotechnology

Laura Schultz
CNSE Assistant Professor of Nanoeconomics
UAlbany- College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering

Abstract:
In the past two decades nanotechnology has enabled the creation of new products and changed how many existing goods are being produced. The economic activity generated from nanotech has been high in magnitude and wide in scope. This impact will only continue to expand in the coming decades. As a nanoeconomist, I am interested in understanding how nanotech is being used by industry and the potential impacts it could have in the marketplace. If we can better understand how nanotech is being created and commercialized, we can track and potentially expedite the development of emerging technologies. A knowledge of the nanotech development process is vital in order to help researchers, companies, investors, and policymakers make more informed decisions when allocating their scarce resources.

July 28th, 2010

Using Patents to Track the Development of Nanotechnology

In the past two decades nanotechnology has enabled the creation of new products and changed how many existing goods are being produced. The economic activity generated from nanotech has been high in magnitude and wide in scope. This impact will only continue to expand in the coming decades. As a nanoeconomist, I am interested in understanding how nanotech is being used by industry and the potential impacts it could have in the marketplace. If we can better understand how nanotech is being created and commercialized, we can track and potentially expedite the development of emerging technologies. A knowledge of the nanotech development process is vital in order to help researchers, companies, investors, and policymakers make more informed decisions when allocating their scarce resources.

The greatest challenge for economists interested in tracking nanotech is a lack of data. There is plenty of information available on how governments spend nanotech dollars based on mission (defense, space, public health, energy, etc.). However, little is known about how the private sector is developing nanotech. There has been no comprehensive survey of firm investment in nanotech. In 2004, the National Science Foundation surveyed firms to determine which industries are performing nanotech research ( http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf09301/pdf/tab8.pdf ). They found that nanotechnology research was being explored in a majority of industries such as electronics, chemicals, food, construction, mining, and professional services. In order to better understand the status of private sector nanotech, we explored the patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Patents are a common output of industrial research activity; firms interested in commercializing technologies they have developed will apply for patents to protect their intellectual property rights. By tracking patents awarded to companies, we can gain insights into the nanotech research being performed in the private sector.

The USPTO has a special class for nanotechnology innovations. Class 977 is reserved for all nanostructures that (a) have at least one physical dimension of approximately 1-100 nanometers and (b) possess a special property, provides a special function or produces a special effect that is uniquely attributable to the structure's nanoscale physical size. Over the past 30 years, the USPTO has identified 6,098 patents that meet these criteria. For each of these patents, we collected information regarding the assignee, location of invention, type of technology, and intended use. Using this information, we can track the research activities of companies, universities and governments.

Who is performing nanotechnology?

The USPTO has awarded 4,288 nanotechnology patents to companies between January 1980 and June 2010. The table below shows the 21 most prolific nanotechnology patentees. The top ten of these companies account for 26% of all nanotechnology patents awarded to the private sector. The next 11 companies share 11% of all nanotechnology patents. This suggests that nanotechnology research is very concentrated among a handful of firms. Many of the firms on the list are considered leaders in innovation. IBM, the top nanotech patentee, also received the most US Patents out of all patent assignees in 2009. Nine of the top nanotechnology patentees were among the top 20 overall patent assignees in 2009. This suggests that nanotechnology research is primarily being done by companies with a focus on and proven track record in innovation.

Top Nanotechnology Patentees



Three companies on the list are new firms focusing on generating nanotechnology products. Nantero, founded in 2001, uses carbon nanotubes to develop next generation semiconductor devices. D-wave Systems was founded in 1999 to design superconductor processors for quantum computing applications. Nanosys designs unique nanomaterials for applications such as LEDs and energy storage. The company was founded in 2002 and is headquartered in Palo Alto, CA. To date, nanotech has been primarily the realm of the established innovator, but there are opportunities for emerging firms to launch new products.

What are the emerging nanotechnologies?

Patents can also provide information on the type of nanotechnologies being developed and sectors where they are likely to emerge. There are two measures we can examine for clues. The first is based on the classification system used by the USPTO to categorize new technologies. Patent examiners assign a class based on the potential uses of a new technology. The six classes most commonly assigned are listed below.

Most Common Nanotechnology Patent Classes



To date, the focus of patented nanotechnology research has been on the design and manufacturing of nanoelectronics (30%) and metrology (19%). This is consistent with an examination of the industries performing the patentable research. Figure 1 shows the nanotechnology patents by industry in 1990. The electronics and semiconductor industries were the early leaders in patenting. Metrology equipment was the other leader of early nanotechnology development.

Nanotechnology patents by NAICS industry (1990)



Nanotech's role in the private sector has expanded a great deal in the last 20 years. While computers, semiconductors and electronics still dominate the patents awarded in nanotechnology (80%), there has been growth in several other industries, including chemical, medical diagnostics, and professional research industries. An examination of nanotechnology patents shows that the potential role nanotechnology could play in industry, has expanded. This suggests the economic impact of nanotechnology will expand across multiple industries and technologies.

Nanotechnology patents by NAICS industry (2009)



This preliminary analysis of company nanotech patents shows that research activity in the private sector is focused in a handful of very innovative companies. While the efforts are concentrated, there is still room for emerging companies with a focus on nanotech. The research being patented to date has focused on nanoelectronics but there has been growth in other areas such as chemicals, industrial equipment, and medical devices. The use of patents has helped us confirm of what has been long accepted: nanotechnology will have a comprehensive economic impact. The nanoeconomics research group will continue to delve deeper into the patent data to gain more insights into the development and commercialization of emerging nanotechnologies.

Professor Schultz's Bio

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