I saw this recent BBC article re spiderman and nanotechnology – enjoy. The article notes the technology of one company, nanoGriptech, which is a spin-off company from Carnegie Mellon University (see Professor Metin Sitti). More generally, the article relates to bio-inspired adhesives (see geckos, for example) and applications with robotics. NanoGriptech was funded early on by the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center. I encourage readers to explore this web page for interesting updates including inputs from their new leader, Leone Hermans-Blackburn.
Miracles of nature and science are all around us, and one of them is the abilty of an organism to heal itself. If skin is cut, the skin can repair itself. Can that concept also be applied to synthetic materials and coatings? One company trying to commercialize the concept is Autonomic Materials, Inc. (AMI). In the AMI approach, microcapsules are used. AMI recently announced it completed a series B financing, with Phoenix Venture Partners investing. In these tougher economic times, including tough times for venture capital, AMI’s receipt of investment is good news. More about Phoenix Venture Partners can be found in attached link.
We continue to monitor patent literature for water and liquid treatment technologies related to hydraulic fracturing (see our October 7, 2012 blog entry, for example). We did not see as many granted patents in 2010 and 2011 compared to 2012 (likely a trend reflecting the increased importance of hydraulic fracturing in recent years). One exception was US Patent No. 7,722,770 granted May 25, 2010 (the listed assignee is Anticline Disposal, LLC). Anticline now has five granted patents, best we can tell (8,105,488; 7,722,770; 7,628,919; 7,527,736; and 7,510,656). The processes appear to link to nanotechnology via nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. See also this link. Nanotechnology continues to be a prominent theme in new hydraulic fracturing technologies although many of these nano-HF patent filings are not included in the 977 nanotechnology patent class.
For the Anticline ’770 patent, the abstract indicates:
ABSTRACT: Systems and methods have been developed for treating the waste water contaminated with methanol and boron in addition to other contaminants. The systems and methods allow specifically for the removal of the methanol and boron without the addition of significant chemicals to raise the pH. The water is treated by removing the methanol via biological digestion in a bioreactor, separating a majority of the contaminants from the water by reverse osmosis and removing the boron that passes through the reverse osmosis system with a boron-removing ion exchange resin.
Good to see: high throughput, inexpensive DNA sequencing is being featured on NPR this week in a series entitled the $1,000 Genome. Many of the technologies for this revolution in sequencing, of course, relate closing to or directly are nanotechnology (e.g., nanopore, microfluidic, and/or lab-on-a-chip technologies). Personalized medicine depends on it. More generally, the interface between biology and electronics is one of the most compelling arguments for further development and commercialization of nanotechnology and, more particularly, bio nanotechnology. Another leading example is allowing partially blind or blind persons to see better with artificial retinas.
A brief check of the nanotechnology class 977 patent literature shows IBM has activity in this area. See, for example, their recent US patent publications 2012/0199483 (published August 9, 2012); 2012/0193237 (published August 2, 2012); 2011/0308949 (December 22, 2011); and 2011/0279125 (November 17, 2011).
Hopefully, angel and venture capital investment will also flow to these exciting areas. This appears to be turning out to be one of many virtually secret “killer apps” for nanotech. For example, the NPR series does not delve too much into how the sequencing is done (per the series, sequencing done in a ”black box”). Hopefully, despite the secrecy, the federal and state governments, including those who fund and run the NNI, are watching.
We confirm that a nanotechnology patent filing explosion continues at a record pace in 2012 as we enter the final trimester of the year. On July 8, 2012, we reported that the USPTO was on pace to publish a record number of class 977 nanotechnology patent applications (over 4,000). This was also noted in past postings and reflects a solid trend. We checked again today and confirm that the current projection to end of the year remains at over 4,000 (4,043). The broad variety of technology in the filings is startling and in places unconventional. For example, US Patent Publication 2012/0221268 (the last application to publish) relates to quantum computing and lists Microsoft as assignee. Hydraulic fracturing is increasingly referred to in this body of patent literature as there are 16 such publications this year which is double the number compared to the prior three years combined (e.g., Halliburton’s US Patent Publication 2012/0220504).
Hopefully, as many of these patent filings as possible will serve useful commercial purposes and facilitate investment from the private sector as well as from government. The licensing of these patent filings can be analyzed for use in policy formulation and business development. Certainly, the on-going miniaturization of electronic devices – a hot patent topic these days with the Apple v. Samsung developments - will require more developments in nanotechnology including, for example, better batteries, power management, semiconductors, and displays. Clearly, many of the patent filings find applications related to energy, electronics, and bio nanotechnology.
In addition, hopefully the quality of filings remains solid despite the pressures to file applications. Finally, (hopefully!), patent reform will function to improve the patent system and encourage investment, particularly as it applies to nanotechnology inventions.
Have been reading the 2011 book, Bottled Lightning, Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, by Seth Fletcher. An excellent read for anyone interested in cleantech and nanotech commercialization. The focus is on the lithium ion battery and its scientific, engineering, and manufacturing history. Also, its application to the electric car. The need for high energy density batteries at good cost is a fundamental challenge for nanotechnology (e.g., development nanophosphate battery packs). High surface area is a key parameter directly linked to nanotechnology. The book also draws attention to patent and licensing issues which was interesting. Much bang-for-the buck in this 215 page paperback – enjoy! Here is one public review.
Also, was at the US PTO Cleantech Customer Partnership Meeting this week. In the technical presentation, focus was more on wind and solar.
However, advanced batteries continue to be a critical aspect for cleantech and one of its flagship products, the electric car.
One subject to watch in 2012 is diamond. Synthetic diamond is one important arrow in the arsenal of advanced materials and is an essential part of the carbon based nanomaterials scene including familiar materials in the press such as fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and graphene. Synthetic diamond films and powders, however, are also an important part of nanotechnology 2012, as it can have grain sizes at the nanoscale. Indeed, class 977 nanotech patent efforts on diamond seems to be increasing. In 2011, a record number of class 977 patent applications – 28 – included diamond in the title or abstract. In 2010, that number was only 18 and the year before was only 11. Some important diamond applications lead to energy savings and better electrodes, so it is also an important material for energy and cleantech. Biosensor applications also exist.
An excellent historical treatment of the development of synthetic diamond technology is Robert M. Hazen’s book, The Diamond Makers, 1999. A major player in the field was General Electric, which continues to this day to be a leading force in advanced materials, nanotech, and cleantech.
In the conception of manufacturing at an atomic, molecular, or nanoscale, inventors and futurists have always thought of building the perfect material: diamond.
One of the central aspects of the recently passed patent reform in Congress is the elimination of the best mode defense by amendment to 35 USC Section 282. However, Congress did not in parallel eliminate the best mode from the requirements of 35 USC Section 112. In other words, the US PTO is still supposed to grant patents which satisfy the best mode requirement, but if that does not happen, this violation is not a defense in litigation. In past practice, the US PTO has not sought to evaluate best mode as part of examination.
Best I can tell, the odd legislation as passed represents two competing goals: (1) Congress likes a high-quality disclosure of the invention (hence, it did not amend section 112) ; (2) Congress does not want abusive litigation tactics based on best mode (hence, it amended section 282).
Note: the amendment to Section 282 also appears to remove best mode as a basis for an inequitable conduct defense. Also, best mode cannot be used as a basis for a post-grant opposition.
Quite possibly, the US PTO will provide further guidance on how it will treat best mode and what it expects from applicants in this new legal era. Also, some countries (e.g., Australia) may still require a best mode disclosure. One can check with an expert in each country. If one eliminates the best mode, one might eliminate something essential, which could impact enablement. In some cases, disclosure of the best mode might provide useful support for a non-obviousness position.
Hence, patent applicants need to stay awake. In particular, those working in the chemical, nanotech, and cleantech arts frequently encountered best mode issues. For example, a chemical patent was found by the Federal Circuit earlier this year to have been in violation of the best mode. However, one suspects that the US PTO will have its hands so full dealing with the new law that it will not have time to deal effectively with best mode issues.
Finally, the new best mode law is effective on the date of enactment and shall apply to proceedings commenced on or after that date. News reports and rumors have the President signing the legislation this Friday, September 16, 2011.
The Senate – finally – will vote on patent reform today at 4 p.m. President Obama – finally – will sign the legislation soon after. The President’s speech on jobs is set for this evening, and patent reform may be mentioned in the speech. However, no one quite knows with certainty what the impact will be on the current unemployment rate.
Cleantech and nanotech companies need to immediately understand the impact of this reform on their strategy. Perhaps the only certainty is that companies, universities, federal labs, and other entities, that do not understand the patent reform will be at a disadvantage compared to those that do.
One aspect of the current patent reform debate is whether the CREATE Act will be preserved or modified. Briefly, the CREATE Act seeks to promote joint research activities and allows, in essence, one to exclude as prior art selected patent filings from other parties to a joint research agreement. The statute requires that the patent application be amended in a way to reflect the CREATE Act, so one can monitor patents and published applications for use of the CREATE Act.
The current version of H.R. 1249 purports to preserve in full the specifics and the intentions of the CREATE Act. For example, the House Committee Notes refer to this issue on pages 4 and 43.
We briefly checked nanotech class 977 patents and patent publications for use of the CREATE Act. For the granted patents, only seven 977 patents refer to joint research agreements and list the parties to the agreement. For nanotech class 977 patent publications, only 11 patent publications refer to joint research agreements and refer to the parties of the agreement. Hence, while the CREATE Act may be important, statistically, the CREATE act is not being invoked very frequently, at least in the nanotech space. One point noted is that many of the nanotech 977 patent documents resorting to the CREATE Act involve parties located outside the United States.
Current wisdom noted by some if not many pundits (and/or lawyers) is that patent reform could be passed as early as September. One rationale for the September push is job creation. Certainly, patent lawyers will be kept busy based on the complexities of the issues at hand. Patent applicants and the whole innovation ecosystem will have to react quickly when final legislation passes.
Over a half dozen categories of reform are dealt with based on current legislations passed by the House and the Senate earlier in 2011. These categories range from PTO fee issues to litigation defenses; from first-to-file system to post-grant opposition of patents. Special interest pecularities are sprinkled in as well. One possible outcome is that final legislation will mirror the current House version.
How will this legal revolution impact cleantech and nanotech? The lobbying debates over this legislation, which stretch back for years, has not focused on cleantech or nanotech. The general debate has been between pharma and "tech" companies. While cleantech and nanotech covers a broad swath of commercial entities, in general, cleantech and nanotech likely falls closer to the pharma side. Many technologies in cleantech and nanotech will take a decade or more to reach market fruition, much like pharma. A strong patent system is needed to encourage investment. Like any innovation community, cleantech and nanotech companies will need to file strong patent applications from the start to benefit fully from the patent system.
Our June 27, 2011 blog noted section 25 which would allow for priority examination of cases related to technologies of national economic importance. Cleantech would certainly fall into that category, at least under the Obama administration. However, the US PTO already has an accelerated examination system for cleantech. At last count, as of August 11, the US PTO had granted 435 greentech patents (resulting from accelerated examination) and granted 2,250 accelerated examination petitions.
The forces leading to a possible September resolution are perhaps now set after years of lobbying and compromising. Nevertheless, the PTO is taking your comments as it will need to pass rules to adapt to the new law. Cleantech and nanotech will watch and respond quickly to the new law, if and when enacted. The new Congressional budget cutting "Super Committee" may also influence spending aspects of the changes including PTO fee diversion.
Whatever the legal wrangles, its time for America to invent more, faster, and better. Hopefully, the law will encourage that outcome. Hopefully, it will not just be a "legal employment act." We will plan to monitor patent reform and be ready to discuss it as needed at our panel at the 10th Annual NanoBusiness/Nanomanufacturing Summit, to be held in Boston September 25-27.
The environmental group, Friends of the Earth, has recently published an 88 page report called "Nanotechnology, Climate, and Energy: Over-Heated Promises and Hot Air?" Condensing a review of 88 pages into a brief blog post is no easy challenge, but let me try. The report purports to identify hot air. But is the report itself hot air? That is the question.
A good starting point to review this 88 page tome is its executive summary statement:
In this report, for the first time, Friends of the Earth puts the ‘green’ claims of industry under the microscope. Our investigation reveals that the nanotechnology industry has over-promised and under-delivered.
Clearly, this report is not friendly to nanotech. Clearly, the group needs a nanoscope, not a microscope. Is there any new technology under the sun which does not in some sense "over-promise" and "under-deliver" – is that not inherent in new technology as societies figure out what it means?
Last year, Josh Lerner published another provocative book, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed – and What to Do About It (Princeton University Press, 2009). Why bring this up now? Two reasons include:
- The ten year anniversary of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is at hand, and
- The thirty year anniversary of the Bayh-Dole Act is also at hand. Both are subject to “celebrations” in Washington DC in coming days and weeks. Both involve government playing strong roles in innovation and jobs.
In addition, the recent election further makes for important political debate about the role of the government in stimulating job creation. Will the new Congress continue to fund nanotech? How long will cleantech be a ”darling” of politicians and venture capitalists (or flavor of the month)?