Image: Gene Chutka via iStockphoto.com
The United States continues to lead the world in nanotechnology patent applications and grants, and is poised to see a period of exponential growth in the field in the next few years, according to "Intellectual Property in the Next Technology Revolution: How Does the United States Stack Up?", a study by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
The leadership role is important because the next technology revolution will likely be based on nanotechnologythe understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale, the studys authors say. One nano is one-billionth of a meterin other words, a nanometer is so small, a human hair is 40,000 nanometers thick, and one page of a book is about 100,000 nanometers.
The ability to work at that size is being applied to all kinds of new inventions at an increasing rate. Its important for the U.S. to be a leader in such a base technology, Carey Jordan, a McDermott partner and an author of the study, told CorpCounsel.com.
In 2012, U.S.-based inventors accounted for 54 percent of nanotechnology-related patent applications and issued patents. South Korea followed with 7.8 percent, Japan with 7.1 percent, Germany with 6.2 percent, and China with 4.9 percent.
On a regional basis, inventors based in North America, (the U.S. and Canada), led with 56.6 percent; those in East Asia, (South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan), followed with 23.9 percent; and inventors in Europe were third with 18.5 percent.
The study also examined a geographical breakdown of 2012 nanotechnology patent literature based on the location of the assignee. If an inventor works in the United States for a Japanese company, for example, the inventor is U.S.-based but the assignee is Japanese, and the Japanese company might own the patent.
Viewed with these geographical parameters, North Americas share of nanotechnology-related patent literature was smaller, but it still led worldwide with 45.2 percent in 2012. East Asia was next with 22.4 percent, and Europe followed with 15.7 percent.
Patent literature was defined for purpose of the study as U.S. patent applications, patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and published international patent applications that had the term nano in the claims, title, or abstract.
In the decade between 2002 and 2012, East Asiaespecially China and South Koreahave seen some of the greatest growth in nanotechnology patent literature, according to the study. Of the top 15 assignees, the United States dominated with nine, followed by East Asia with four and Europe with two. Computer and electronics companiessuch as IBM, Hon Hai Precision Industry, and Samsung Electronicswere the top assignees.
Were moving from a computer-based revolution to a nanotechnology-based revolution, so it isnt surprising that the computer and electronics sector would come first, Jordan said. But other industries, such as chemistry, biological sciences, medicine, and energy, are starting to become pervasive in nanotechnology patent literature.
Other leaders included the University of California, Xerox Corp., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 3M Co. Worldwide, the total number of nanotechnology patent applications, patents granted by the PTO, and published international patent applications has gone from 14,261 in 2007 to 18,855 in 2012, according to the study.
Nanotechnology plays a role in almost every economic sector, from aerospace to medicine to energy, the study says. Many commercial products incorporate nanomaterial or nanotechnology principles, such as new types of batteries that can be used to power vehicles, and new ways to treat tumors and cancerous growths that focus on the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue. Nanotech is used in alternative energy, in cancer research, and many other areas, said Valerie Moore, a Ph.D. and patent agent at McDermott and a co-author of the study.
To bring home the importance of nanotechnology, the study quotes several political and industry leaders. Nanotechnology is the base technology of an industrial revolution in the 21st century, said Michiharu Nakamura, executive vice president of Hitachi China Ltd. Those who control nanotechnology will lead the industry.
Despite East Asias gains, the U.S. does not appear to be losing its edge, the studys authors said. The volume of nanotechnology patent literature published in 2012 was 3 percent greater than in of 2011. This includes approximately 550 more U.S patents granted in 2012 than in 2011.
Based on historical trends, the U.S. is poised to experience exponential growth in the field of nanotechnology in the next 2 to 3 years, Jordan said. This type of boom usually occurs after there has been a steady growth in research and understanding of a new technology, she said.
Much of the growth is related to increased funding for and education about nanotechnology. The U.S. has increased its funding for this research dramaticallyfrom $220 million in 2000 to $1.8 billion in 2012, according to the study. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the European Union have also increased their funding for nanotechnology research. The U.S. is in good shape, but others have recognized the importance of the field, Moore said. The U.S. should continue to be innovative in this area and remain a leader.