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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering > Using Patents to Track the Development of Nanotechnology
July 28th, 2010
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.
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