Networks of inventors

By Shaun Hendy 28/09/2009 12


Several people in my research group have been studying an OECD patent database recently. We were particularly interested in whether we could find evidence for collaborative networks of inventors. Almost all researchers collaborate with other researchers to some extent, but it was not clear to us that these collaborations would show up in the patent literature. While each patent application must name the inventors that have directly contributed to the invention, indirect contributions from unnamed researchers would be invisible to the database.

So when we started it wasn’t clear that we would find collaborative networks of inventors at all. However, we have now found many large communities of inventors who are connected by patents. In fact it turns out that these networks are similar in some ways to the small-world networks that exist in social groupings or between web pages, with hubs that form around highly inventive people. I’ll talk in more detail about structure of these co-inventor networks in another post.

The largest network we have found is in California, stretching from San Francisco to San Diego and connecting approximately 24,000 inventors. As far as we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything else like it in the world – the next largest networks are less than 10,000 inventors in size, and are 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 and pharmaceutical companies. There is definitely something in the water in California.

Helsinki The other network that has fascinated me is much smaller. It consists of about 1300 inventors in the Helsinki region in Finland, whose patents are owned by Nokia (appropriately Nokia’s current slogan is ’Connecting People’). A representation of the network is shown on the right — the red dots (’nodes’) show individual inventors, with the lines (’edges’) between dots indicating that the two inventors share a patent. This network formed as Nokia transformed itself from a relatively small consumer electronics company to a globally dominant mobile phone manufacturer over the period 1993-2008 .

Finland output growth The largest network we can find in New Zealand consists of less than 40 people. So I find it remarkable that a co-inventor network of 1300 people exists in a country with a population similar to New Zealand. Finland’s patent and publication statistics from the early 1990s do not suggest that they were any stronger than New Zealand in information and communication technology. Yet by the end of the decade they were vigorously patenting and writing papers in ICT, and had increased their electronics exports tenfold to more than NZ$20 billion per annum (shown on the left). No matter how you look at it, this was a remarkable economic transformation.

Of course, Finland was lucky that Nokia emerged with the right product at the right time, but to exploit this luck to become the dominant player in the world cell-phone market, they apparently drew on this very large pool of inventors.

Where did they get that inventive talent from? I gave a talk on this in June at MoRST where someone suggested that there may have been an influx of Russian scientists and engineers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the inventors names in the database are distinctly Finnish – it appears that the Finns trained Nokia’s inventors in their universities. While in the 1980’s, less than 50 engineering PhDs were graduating from Finland’s university each year (close to New Zealand’s current total), early in the 1990s this started to grow, and by the end of the decade the figure had tripled. In a later post, I’ll look at this in more detail.


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