In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama predicted: “The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.” The good news is that the number of patent filings in the US Patent Office shows that America is pushing hard to lead the global race toward clean tech. Yet, these same statistics show that we may be losing ground to Asian economies, where it seems a greater priority is given to clean tech than in the U.S.
Of the 1,000 leading organizations in the U.S. patent system, over half are American, while roughly a quarter are Asian. One would expect patents directed to clean tech to see a similar breakdown. Yet, twenty-four of the Clean Tech 50 companies, as ranked by IEEE Spectrum, are Asian, while only twenty-two are American. Thus, based on patent registrations, Asian companies seem far more focused on clean tech than American companies. If the president’s prediction is true, this statistic does not bode well for America’s continued global economic leadership.
One solution is to encourage small business innovation, or at least not inhibit it. Looking at U.S. patent registration highlights, the connection between small businesses and innovation is indisputable. While a far greater number of patents issue to large American firms, according to a 2008 1790 Analytics report, “small firm patents tend to be more significant than large firm patents.”
Small firm patents outperform large firm patents in a number of categories. Small firms generate more patents per employee, their patents have greater citation impact and originality, and perhaps most importantly, they tend to have broader claim scope. Claims define the legal boundary of a patented invention. Broader claim scope often indicates a more innovative invention since the US Patent Office will require an inventor to narrow his or her claim scope when a proposed claim encompasses known technologies. The fact that small firms are earning patents with broader scope than larger firms evidences that “the patents of small firms in general are likely to be more technologically important than those of large firms.”
In 2011 American leaders should recognize that to lead the global economy, America must focus on clean tech, and encouraging small firm innovation is a crucial way to do this.
Steve Gruber is in his final term at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and is a registered Patent Agent. He is also a mountaineer, soccer player, and former Division I varsity golf team captain.