Patent filing data are suggesting (if not confirming) that nanotechnology is an increasingly important technology sector in the U.S. For example, in 2004, the US PTO created the 977 nanotechnology class which provides a useful metric. In 2011, the 10,000th nanotechnology 977 patent publication published. The current patent publication count stands at 10,735 (as of December 8, 2011). Of these, 3,223 were published in 2011 which is about 30%. About 70% of the 10,735 have published in the past three years (2009-2011). An explosion this is.
Patent publications are a leading indicator for current trends in patenting. Because patents can take 2-6 years to grant, typically, patent publications are a more sensitive measure for the trends. Moreover, not every patent application is granted, which further skews the analysis if one focuses only on granted patents.
The history shows strong growth in nanotechnology patenting. Patent publication in the US started in 2001. Two periods of growth can be identified for nanotechnology patenting. First, in 2001-2005, there were not many nanotechnology patent publications (about 150 per year). A spurt occurred in 2006, however, where about 900 issued each year from 2006-2008. Then, an even larger spurt occurred, with patent publications doubling (roughly) in 2009 and, again, in 2010. For 2011, the numbers are higher than 2010, but the doubling effect is not observed (3,223 for 2011 versus 2,770 for 2010).
The role of the federal government in our economy is a hot topic, including issues of technology transfer to create jobs and the Bayh-Dole system. The percentage of 977 patent publications that include the federal funding clause maintains a steady 12% rate.
Nanotechnology is fueling important innovation in key sectors such as printed electronics, cleantech, nanomedicine, sensors, catalysis, personalized medicine, and the military – to name a few!
Personally, I do not find the subclassification system to be too useful in further analysis of 977 patenting. There are 263 subclasses including classes focused on uses of the nanostructures. One would like to pick out a particular use (e.g., commercial market), and examine the relevant subclasses. For example, nanotechnology is having an important impact on cancer medicine, but the three subclasses which relate to nanotechnology in their description (836, 911, and 912) do not have many patent publications.
A useful review article on the impact of nanotechnology on personalized medicine and cancer treatment is attached.
We applaud the US PTO for setting up the 977 class, and the class is useful. After seven plus years of managing it, we hope that the class is being managed well and that consistent reviews of the classification process are being carried out. Hopefully, the subclassification system can become more useful.