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New Zealand’s largest inventor network: A glimpse of our innovation ecosystem Shaun Hendy Apr 04

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We have been experimenting with ways to represent the inventor networks that we can extract from patent databases.  In this post, I will focus on New Zealand’s largest inventor network, as extracted from 30 years of European Patent Office (EPO) data.  The network gives us a glimpse of New Zealand’s innovation ecosystem.

NZ inv largest v3At the left is a network we have constructed showing the largest group of connected inventors in New Zealand.  Each red dot represents an inventor, and the size of the dot represents the number of patents on which that person is named. Inventors are connected by a blue line where they have shared a patent.

There are four hundred and fifty inventors in the network, and it links fourteen New Zealand companies:  Fonterra, A2 Corporation, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Genesis Research and Development, Wrightson Seeds, Biojoule, Sensortec, Arborgen, Protemix, Neuren Pharmaceuticals, Brainz Instruments Ltd, Dashfoot Ltd, Vital Food Processors Limited and Envirofocus Ltd.  A number of international pharmaceutical companies are linked together through this network, including Chiron Corporation, Cancer Research Technology, Xenova Limited, Proteotech, Pharmacia & Upjohn (now part of Pfizer) and Warner-Lambert (also now part of Pfizer).

Four of the Crown Research Institutes are in this network (Crop and Food Research, NIWA, Industrial Research Ltd and AgResearch) as well as three universities (Massey University, the University of Otago, the University of Auckland) and the Malaghan Institute.  There are also scientists from several of the Centres of Research Excellence:  the Maurice Wilkins Centre, the Riddet Institute and the MacDiarmid Institute.

This is a very interesting snapshot of New Zealand’s innovation sector. It links several of New Zealand’s largest companies to much smaller startups.  It links a company that manufactures advanced respirators to a company that sells seeds.  It links researchers from several of our major public sector research organisations to those in several of our most R&D intensive companies. It really does suggest there is an innovation ecosystem out there!

Largest Inventor NetworkIf we geolocate the inventors by the addresses listed on the patents, we can get an idea of the geographical spread of the network.  The image on the right (generated using Google Earth) shows that the network stretches from Northland to Dunedin.  It is truly a national network, although its heart is in Auckland.  Try it out yourself – the kmz data file is available here (and you can get Google Earth here).  Viewing the data file in Google Earth will enable you to zoom in on particular regions in detail.  You will be able to see the connections between individual researchers.

Here is a close up of Auckland and its inventors in the network:

Auckland Largest Component

So go take a look.  In the next few weeks, we will be releasing the full EPO patent map of New Zealand in Google Earth and also a map that traces our international linkages.

We are also interested in improving the usefulness of these maps — at the moment you will find both the inventors’ and the applicants’ names on the map, but we would like to add subject areas and other information.  Let us know if you have any ideas!

P.s.  I would like to thank Catriona Sissons for her hard work in putting these maps together.  She has worked with me since 2008 on patent analysis, but recently moved to Melbourne to try life on the other side of the Tasman.

The world’s biggest inventor network Shaun Hendy Nov 08

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I have been on the road recently giving my talk on evidence for agglomeration and networks in the international patent record.  Over consecutive weeks I gave talks at the the New Zealand Association of Scientists meeting in Wellington, NZ eResearch Symposium at the University of Auckland and then at Running Hot at Te Papa. Phew.

It is a lot of fun presenting this work to such diverse groups of people and as this is not my core area of expertise, I usually learn a lot from my audience. Nonetheless if I ever get invited back to talk at the NZAS meeting again, I must remember to wear my suit as when I got to the podium I was mistaken for the AV technician.  Despite this minor set back, I think my message was well received.

But I digress. Here is a paragraph from the draft of my paper for the NZAS meeting:

We also identify many large communities of inventors around the world connected via co-patents. In Finland, for instance, we find that a network of more than a thousand inventors formed in the late 1990s, contributing to the rapid development of a 10 billion euro ICT export sector. However, the largest network we have found connects approximately 24,000 inventors working with medical device industry in California. Here we will discuss aspects of the structure of these networks and consider what impact such networks could have on New Zealand’s capacity to innovate.

imageIn fact, the highlight of these meetings for me was the afternoon plenary on the first day of Running Hot when it dawned on me that I was listening to someone who must be in this super-sized Californian network (pictured on the right). In fact, the speaker, Catherine Mohr is Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical, a high technology surgical robotics company based in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Go check out Catherine’s TED talk.

At the end of the conference I was able to button-hole her over a beer.  Remarkably, she was not surprised to learn she was part of such a large network, but rather it vindicated her impression that she worked in a very well connected industry!

She suspects that the network had its beginnings at Stanford University, originating from a number of research groups there earlier this decade. However, our data shows that this big network gobbled up several medium size networks as it grew, so I expect that there are more genesis stories like Catherine’s to uncover.

Why is this so interesting? When we first started looking at the patent database, we were not sure whether we would find any large networks at all.  Then when we did start to find them, we saw they were dominated by large firms like Philips or Sun Microsystems. However, the inventors in this large Californian network come from a diverse range of organisations, seemingly a mix of small health-care companies like Intuitive Surgical.  They are also spread out over the Californian coast rather than clustered in a single metropolitan centre.

For me, the nucleation and growth of a network like this provides an interesting insight as to how new knowledge-based industries might arise in New Zealand.  While we could follow the Finns by picking a winner like Nokia, I think it is easier for many people to contemplate clusters of smaller companies emerging in the New Zealand context.

So do we have the makings of anything like this in New Zealand?  In a few weeks we will be releasing New Zealand’s largest inventor networks embedded in Google Earth.  I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but there are indeed some interesting things going on. Watch this space.

Critical mass or is mass critical? Shaun Hendy Oct 20

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ResearchBlogging.org

In research and development, it’s often taken for granted that teams require a certain critical mass to be successful.  Indeed, in a recent paper [1] two European researchers claim to have seen the effects of critical mass in the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its French equivalent (HT: Mark Wilson).  However, I think that their findings may be an artifact of the assessment process, rather than evidence for critical mass.

By looking at how group research quality depended on the size of a group, the researchers observed a linear relationship between size and assessed quality.  Indeed, I have seen a similar correlation between inventor network size and productivity in patenting

However, in their study they found that this correlation holds only up to a certain group size, which they hypothesize is the ‘critical mass’ for scientific collaboration.  Above this critical mass, quality grows less rapidly with group size.  This would seem to suggest there is an optimal group size for scientific collaboration.

On the other hand, I’ve not found any evidence for such an effect in my patent studies, where some of the most productive groups of inventors are collaborating in networks of tens of thousands.  So is there such a thing as critical mass?

Research Assessment

If you are part of the university system, you will be familiar with the idea of research assessment.  In New Zealand, we have the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF), which allocates funding to universities on the basis of the aggregate research performance of their staff.

In the New Zealand system, each university researcher is assessed by a panel on the basis of their research portfolio, and given a grade A, B, C or R (where you want to be an A not an R).  This grade is based on a weighted average of the assessed quality (a score between 1-7, with 7 being world-leading) of research output (70%), peer esteem (15%) and contributions to the research environment (15%).  In the UK, a similar system is used with quality levels assessed on a scale of 0 to 4.  

One problem with this approach is that each of these three criteria is ranked on a scale from 1 to 7.  Although research output is given the heaviest weighting, it is not possible with such a scoring system to discriminate between two researchers whose research output is world leading — each would be ranked a 7, even if one researcher was much further ahead of the ‘world’ than the other.

Instead, such researchers might only be distinguished through their peer esteem or contribution to the research environment scores, even though these criteria are weakly weighted.  The scoring system used by FRST in its assessment of research proposals also suffers from this inability to discriminate on the basis of its most heavily weighted criteria.

Measuring Excellence

I suspect this inability to discriminate may be behind the ‘discovery’ of critical mass in [1].  Indeed, to their credit the authors acknowledge that such a bias in the RAE may explain their findings.

If scoring systems like these suffer from an inability to discriminate at the top end, why are they used by our PBRF, the UK RAE and FRST?  Chiefly, I believe, it is for the benefit of the assessors — it is much easier to rank each criteria on a scale of 1-7 than to use a more fine-grained scoring system that might have a different range for each criteria.  Having reviewed more than 100 research proposals this year, I certainly appreciate the benefits of such a simple system.          

I once heard Sir Peter Gluckman suggest that the PBRF needed an extra grade for top researchers called A*.  If we wanted to implement such a scheme (I am not saying we actually need to!) then I think we would need to revise our approach to ranking research portfolios.  For instance we could allow reviewers to add an extra decimal place to the scores of portfolios or proposals with a 6 or a 7 (e.g. 6.5) — this would allow reviewers to distinguish between research  on the basis of the most heavily weighted criteria, not on the weakest.

Critical mass? 

So is there such a thing as critical mass? Well, if there is, I don’t think this study [1] is likely to have found it. I also haven’t seen anything like a critical mass in looking at the OECD’s patent databases: networks of tens of thousands are more productive than networks of thousands.  Personally, I think that the skills and knowledge base of scientists and engineers are becoming increasingly specialized, requiring them to work in larger and larger teams. If this is the case, then it is mass that is critical, not the the other way round!

[1] Kenna, R., & Berche, B. (2010). The extensive nature of group quality EPL (Europhysics Letters), 90 (5) DOI: 10.1209/0295-5075/90/58002

Review of the New Zealand IP system released Shaun Hendy May 03

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The Ministry of Economic Development released a report on the state of New Zealand’s IP system last month.  The report, written for MED by Auckland Uniservices, was based on a number of stakeholder surveys conducted last year.  The aim of the review was described in MED’s request for proposals as:

… to ensure government policies and practices, in respect of intellectual property, are well aligned to support [the goal of lifting New Zealand’s level of productivity].  The focus of this work is on improving productivity and to identify areas which have the potential to support this goal.  The report is to assess how well New Zealand businesses understand and use intellectual property and where opportunities exist to improve the intellectual property rights system.

Based on the survey, the report makes a number of recommendations:

  1. Government agencies need to raise awareness and understanding of IP within the business community;
  2. The government should consider reinstatement of R&D tax credits, and review the tax treatment of earnings from off-shore royalties;
  3. A single, comprehensive IP policy should be developed;
  4. Further research is needed.

The report itself goes beyond the results of these surveys and takes a wider view of the IP system.  For instance, the report’s review of the literature on the benefits of an IP system is relevant to a previous discussion on this blog about the value of patents:

… a recent emerging literature, which focuses on the private returns to patent protection, suggests that where firms prefer patenting to other mechanisms of appropriation, the benefit is significant, in the order of 50% on average of invention value.

(my emphasis).  While private returns may be significant, other literature suggests that patent disclosure itself may be less important for the diffusion of knowledge between firms than other mechanisms.  For example, the protection that a patent provides encourages firms to share details with investors and downstream commercial partners:

Therefore, without a patent, inventors may be unable to license their inventions to third parties or to raise capital.  On this basis, it is sometimes argued that patents are particularly important to small firms, who, on account of their scale, require financial, development, or distribution partners to bring their innovations to market.

I was also interviewed last year by the report’s authors about our network analysis of an OECD patent database.  It is pleasing that there is some discussion of our findings and the authors suggest that:

The ability to form networks might be affected by New Zealand’s geographic isolation and industry characteristics, there would appear to be potential for exploring possibilities for networks based on the CER arrangements with Australia.

This is also going to come up as we get further into Philip McCann’s paper on New Zealand’s economic geography.

Kiwi superconductivity industry overcomes resistance Shaun Hendy Feb 08

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This week, New Zealand hosts the 18th International Superconductivity Industry Summit, where multi-national heavy-weights like Siemans AG will rub shoulders with New Zealand-based companies such as General Cable NZ Ltd and HTS-110.  As the superconductivity industry matures over the next decade, these New Zealand companies have an excellent chance of becoming significant export earners.  How did New Zealand come to have a superconductivity industry in the first place, and why are multi-national companies descending on Te Papa later this week to hear what we have to say?

Superconductivity was discovered almost 100 years ago, when it was found that many metals completely lose electrical resistance once they are cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 degrees C).  When metals become this cold, rather than jostling and shoving their way through an electrical wire, electrons can pair up and ‘waltz’ quantum mechanically along the wire without resistance.  Today, to produce the intense magnetic fields needed by MRI machines, expensive liquid helium is used to cool metal electromagnets to temperatures at which they will superconduct.

Since the original discovery, many scientists have have tried and failed to find a material that would superconduct at room temperature:  such a material could allow us to dramatically shrink any device that needs powerful electromagnets, including electric motors.  I was lucky enough recently to see a talk by Jeff Tallon, one of New Zealand’s leading physicists, on the prospects for room temperature superconductivity.  Unfortunately, recent work by Jeff and James Storey (a kiwi physicist at Cambridge) suggests that room temperature superconductivity is unlikely to be possible, and even if it does exist, would not be practical enough for real applications.

However, thanks to Jeff and many other scientists at Gracefield in the Hutt Valley, we have the next best thing.  In the 1980s, Jeff and his colleagues at the DSIR (now Industrial Research Ltd) discovered a material that would superconduct at temperatures where nitrogen is a liquid (-196 degrees C).  Liquid nitrogen is a much cheaper coolant than liquid helium, so Jeff’s material makes it feasible to exploit superconductivity in many technologies beyond MRI machines.

So why can’t you catch a 300kph superconducting maglev train to visit Jeff in Lower Hutt two decades on?  Inconveniently, these ‘high temperature’ superconductors have proved to be very brittle, and it has taken more than 20 years to figure out how to turn them into wires that are ductile enough for real world applications.  Even then, these superconducting wires are difficult to work with, and require lots of know how to turn them into working electromagnets.  It is in these technologies that New Zealand has developed an edge. 

What is particularly interesting to me is the role that intellectual property has played in the development of this sector in New Zealand.  Jeff and his team only won the patents for their superconductor (BSCCO) after a long battle, but the paper value of these patents will quite possibly be dwarfed by the value of the industry that has been established around them.  Yet it was these patents that attracted the patient investment by government and others, which has been necessary for developing New Zealand’s capabilities in high temperature superconductivity.  These capabilities are now embodied in the skills and know how of a large team of scientists and engineers. 

In turn, this IP was generated by basic research undertaken at the DSIR.  The research was not carefully vetted by a purchasing agency prior to proceeding, nor was it undertaken after a careful assessment of New Zealand’s competitive advantage.  Rather, it was an inspired piece of ‘bottom-up’ science, by a team of talented New Zealanders, responding rapidly to international discoveries reported in the latest scientific journals. 

New Zealand has got this far with superconductivity because it backed a team of scientists conducting fundamental research in a highly competitive field, and because it then showed the patience to invest in developing the resulting technology for two decades.  Overseas investment has been crucial, and so the HTS wire itself is now made in the US by American Superconductor.  While the success of New Zealand’s superconductivity industry is not yet a sure thing, and further investment will be needed for it to grow, it is now earning export revenue with high-tech products that no other country can match.

Top patenting organisations in New Zealand: some stats Shaun Hendy Jan 22

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In a post a few weeks ago, there was a discussion on the value of patents. Sciblogs reader Bruce Hamilton pointed out that the value of an abandoned patent could simply be as an output for a funding agency. Could it be then the requirements of funding agencies for outputs is driving patenting activities? Bruce has put together a selection of statistics from IPONZ looking at patenting activity in some of New Zealand’s research organisations, both public and private. Bruce did not intend the list below to be exhaustive, but he has covered a selection of Universities, CRIs, large private companies and smaller start-ups. It’s very interesting to see who some of our top patenting organisations are, and how many of them have patents in progress.

Number Aborted (%) In Progress (%) Completed (%)
Fisher & Paykel 424 60 2 38
Uniservices 388 66 14 21
Industrial Research Limited 374 66 5 29
Agresearch 210 55 12 33
Fletcher 201 41 9 50
Carter Holt Harvey 186 56 9 35
Fonterra 143 43 17 39
Otago University 100 77 4 19
Gallagher Group 83 43 12 48
Massey University 76 55 8 37
Genesis R&D Corp 45 36 11 56
IGNS 37 58 6 36
Otago Innovation 18 50 17 33
Syft Technologies 15 57 0 43
Blis Technologies 13 64 0 36

Aborted = Abandoned + Voided Pre-acceptance
In Progress = Filed, Examination, Accepted
Completed = Granted, Expired or Not Renewed.

At least in this data set, it does look like public organisations abort more of their patents than their private counterparts. However, public research organisations are charged with disseminating their research findings through journal articles or presentations at scientific conferences. Once a piece of research has entered the public domain, it can no longer be patented, so public research organisations may chose to protect their IP by filing a provisional patent prior to publishing or presenting their work. This gives them the option of proceeding with a full patent within the next year should they choose to do so, while allowing them to publish their work. Private research organisations, under less pressure to publish, can simply choose to not release their findings while they decide whether a piece of work is worth the expense of filling a full patent.

Thanks to Bruce for taking the time to extract this interesting data.

What are patents good for? Shaun Hendy Jan 08

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I’ve spent a lot of time in this blog analysing the distribution of patents both geographically and amongst companies. In this post I’ll briefly look at the value of a patent, firstly from the perspective of the inventor, and then from society’s point of view.

A patent for an invention protects its inventor from being scooped by other inventors by granting a monopoly for the use of the invention for a fixed period of time. Inventors need to pay the bills, so this monopoly provides an opportunity to receive a return on the time, effort and capital expended in producing the invention. The inventor can obtain this return on investment by commercially exploiting the invention themselves, by licensing the use of the invention to others or by selling the patent. Often the costs of producing the invention will have been met by an employer or investor, giving them a share of the patent from the outset.

Granting monopolies is not something we do lightly in free market economies, as we recognise that monopolists are likely to exploit their position by pricing above the market. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies are often heavily criticised for this, reducing availability of the latest drugs to the less well off. However, without the potential for monopolistic profits, the drug companies argue that they would not be prepared to invest in the risky business of drug discovery in the first place. A patent is a social compromise.

But there is another benefit to society that in the long run may be just as important. To be granted the patent, the inventor must publically disclose the workings of their invention as completely as possible. This allows others to improve on the invention, speeding the innovative process, and ensures that the invention will be available to all once the patent expires. Now the inventor must compromise — without disclosure, secrecy may allow the retention of the inventor’s monopoly for a longer period.

Not all inventors will accept the trade-off inherent in a patent. Inventors can always choose to try to exploit their invention by keeping key details secret e.g. the infamous Coca Cola recipe. However, more and more these days, inventors are also releasing their inventions to the public for free e.g. open source software development. In this case the inventor will either need to rely on an alternative business model, or will have to get a day job!

What’s ahead in 2010? Shaun Hendy Dec 29

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2010 is shaping up to be a defining year for New Zealand’s RS&T system. We will be hearing how the Government will set its RS&T priorities and what these priorities will be. The CRI task force will be reporting back, and we will find out how the Government is going to encourage R&D in the business sector. As I discussed in a post last month, the money spent by the business sector on R&D is strongly correlated with patenting.

What will I be blogging about in 2010? I have devoted quite a bit of time this year discussing data that we have extracted from the OECD patent database. There is still a lot of information to be mined from this database and I will be continuing to discuss this in the New Year. For instance, I will have more to say about inventor networks and how their structure changes with network size. I also want to look at some specific networks in more detail, comparing their size and structure between countries.

I will also follow up on some of my earlier posts on bibliometrics. It took me a while to get permission from Thompson Reuters to start publishing citation data, but this has now come through, so I will be looking at how the impact factors of New Zealand institutions have changed over the last 20 years. I also want to follow up with more detail on the surprisingly large co-author networks that exist within the New Zealand science community.

Of course, from time to time, I will blog on other matters that interest me throughout the year. I have been following the progress of some new types of collaborative research: mathematicians have been learning how to use the mass collaboration that blogging allows to prove theorems and solve original research problems. This is, after all, the reason that the web was created in the first place.

Collaboration, whether through blogs or other means, may be the key to New Zealand taking its own R&D to scale.

In the meantime, I hope you are all enjoying your holidays!

The productivity of inventors in cities Shaun Hendy Dec 16

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In previous posts I have looked at data that showed that bigger cities produce more patents per capita. For instance, over the 30-years that the OECD database covers, Auckland has produced one PCT patent for every 750 people, whereas Sydney has produced one for every 550 people. Why is this?

We have seen that inventors that participate in large collaborative networks tend to be more productive. It could be that the opportunities to collaborate, which will presumably be greater in a larger city, increase the productivity of inventors in bigger cities. For instance, if you are putting together a research team that needs specialist skills, it is more likely that you’ll find people with the right skill set in a larger city.

Inventor productivity We can test this by looking at the dependence of inventor productivity on city size. On the left I have plotted the inventor productivity (that is, the number of patents per inventor) versus city size for cities in Australia. This can be less than 1 as typically there is more than one inventor per patent application. As you can see, inventor productivity does not have a dependence on city size in this data. We have found similar results in all the countries we have looked at, including New Zealand.

The corollary is that the number of inventors per capita increases with city size in a similar way to the number of patents. Bigger cities have more patents and more inventors per capita. This seems to rule out collaborative network effects as the cause of the higher number of patents per capita in bigger cities.

What else could be going on? Economists talk about knowledge spillovers where innovations that take place in one business, spur innovation in neighbouring businesses. In this scenario, we would expect to see inventors clustered together, while not necessarily being more productive. This idea is at least consistent with the data above. We’ll explore this in later posts.

2009 RS&T Scorecard released Shaun Hendy Dec 09

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The 2009 RS&T scorecard is now available here. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to obtain a pre-release copy from MoRST so I have not had time to fully digest it.

However, I will draw your attention to the interesting plot on page 4 which charts the number of patents per billion dollars GDP (2009 PPP). This measure presumably says something about the R&D intensity of economies. I find it extremely interesting that the scaled data for New Zealand and Australia are so similar.

Readers will recall that in a previous post I observed how the patent gap between New Zealand and Australia seems to be related to the differences sizes of our cities. Does this then mean that the GDP gap between the two countries is also related to the differences in city size? I suspect so, and sure enough there do seem to be some economists (such as Phil McCann now at the University of Groningen) who have similar suspicions.

As a country we have little control over many of the circumstances that dictate our economic geography.  So is it actually possible for us to close this GDP gap with Australia? Lowering tax rates doesn’t seem to me to be the answer — what do we do when Australia lowers their rates? Instead, along with many others, I think we need to move from a commodity-driven to an innovation-led economy, something that may in fact be more easily accomplished in a smaller country, and something that the Scandinavian countries have managed. Can we follow suit?

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