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Patenting Trends and Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology

Investigation No. SRS-31
USITC Publication 4039


Innovation in industrial biotechnology is strong and growing, and patents are playing a central role, according to a new staff research study by the U.S. International Trade Commission’s (ITC) Office of Industries.

Patenting and Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology uses patent data, survey results, and profiles of firms in two emerging sectors (cellulosic ethanol and bio-based plastics) to paint a new picture of innovation in industrial biotechnology.

The staff research study was prepared by ITC staff. The findings in the study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. International Trade Commission or any of the Commissioners.

The study's principal findings include:

  • the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued 20,428 patents with a primary classification related to industrial biotechnology from January 1975 through December 2006. Industrial biotechnology patents were about one fifth of all biotechnology patents issued during the period;
  • industrial biotechnology patents issued each year climbed steadily beginning in the mid-1980s, peaked in 1999, declined from 2000 through 2005, and rebounded in 2006. These trends were influenced by issues internal to the USPTO, including longer periods of review and stricter standards. Although most patents were issued to domestic and foreign corporations, the share of patents issued to U.S. universities increased sharply over the period;
  • new firms of all sizes are steadily entering the industrial biotechnology field by obtaining patents. Small firms, and particularly university spinoffs, hold valuable patent portfolios in the emerging areas of cellulosic ethanol and bio-based plastics. In general, firms patenting in industrial biotechnology hold a relatively small number of patents, especially when compared to other high tech sectors;
  • strategic alliances among firms, universities, and the U.S. government are prominent in the profiles of industrial biotechnology firms. Patents provide an important mechanism for the transfer of knowledge between alliance partners and are facilitating the movement of industrial biotechnology from research and development stages to commercialization; and
  • this study's findings that industrial biotechnology patents are not controlled by a small number of firms, and that patents are facilitating transfers of technology and knowledge, are consistent with survey results. According to more than 70 percent of biofuel and chemical company representatives responding to an ITC survey, "patent barriers" are one of the least significant impediments to the research, development, and commercialization of industrial biotechnology products and processes.

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