The world’s biggest inventor network

By Shaun Hendy 08/11/2010

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.

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