Patenting by Entrepreneurs: The Berkeley Patent Survey (Part I of III)

By Robert Merges, Pamela Samuelson, and Ted Sichelman, Patently-O Blog

Why do entrepreneurs and startup companies file for patents? Why not? How often do startups acquire patents from others? How important are patents in fostering innovation at startups? In helping them raise financing? In providing leverage in cross-licensing negotiations? Are entrepreneurs and startups subject to patent thickets?

These and many related questions were the subject of the Berkeley Patent Survey—the most comprehensive survey to date in the United States, probably worldwide, on how patents are used by and affect entrepreneurs, startups, and early-stage high technology companies. Funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation—and conducted by us, along with Robert Barr (Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Tech and former VP of IP at Cisco) and Stuart Graham (then a professor at Georgia Tech's College of Management, and currently Chief Economist of the USPTO)—the survey collected responses from over 1,300 companies less than ten years old (hereinafter, "startups") in the biotechnology, medical device, software, and hardware/IT sectors.

In this first post of three, we briefly review three major findings from our initial analysis of the survey about the frequency of patenting among high-tech startups, why startups seek patents, and how they rate patents and other strategies for attaining competitive advantage. In the next post, we'll discuss some reasons startups give for not seeking patents and why they sometimes license-in patents from other companies. In the last post, we'll specifically address startup perceptions about the incentives that patents provide for engaging in innovation as well as the perceived importance of patents in securing outside investments. The investment incentive role of patents has been not only a subject of enduring interest in the patent field generally, but also an important topic of interest of late at the Department of Commerce and PTO. (For those interested in more information, a detailed discussion of the survey results is available here; a focused analysis on the drivers of startup patenting, here; and some background on the genesis of the survey, here.)

First, startups hold many more patents and applications than previously believed. Instead of asking companies how many patents and applications they actually hold—like we did—earlier studies solely used the PTO databases to determine portfolio size. Unfortunately, these databases are unreliable, because the assignee records—particularly for patents acquired from founders and third parties—are incomplete. Our more complete data shows that about 40% of our respondents hold patents or applications, with the figure rising to about 80% for startups funded by venture capital firms.

As expected, this figure varies widely by industry—for example, 97% of venture-backed biotechnology companies hold patents or applications, while only 67% of venture-backed software startups do. And among the general population of software startups responding, the rate was only about 25%. In terms of raw numbers, among biotechnology companies, those with patents and applications have about 13 on hand, with the number rising to about 20 for medical device companies, and falling to about 7 for software companies. In sum, many startups are filing for patents and hold greater numbers than previously believed, though most software companies have never filed for patents.

Second, startups report that they primarily file for patents to prevent against copying of their innovative products and services (see Fig. 1 below). This holds true across all industries and by a variety of other company characteristics, such as age and revenues.
Respondents also note that filing for patents to improve their chances of securing investment and generating a liquidity event (such as an IPO or being acquired) are between moderately and very important reasons to file. In addition, the respondents state that a moderately important reason to file patents is for strategic reasons, such as defending against and preventing patent lawsuits as well as increasing negotiating leverage.

Figure 1: Reasons to File for Patents
Our third major finding concerns startup executives' perceptions of the effectiveness of patents and other methods of providing competitive advantage. Interestingly, responses vary widely (see Fig. 2 below). Biotechnology companies rate patents as the most effective means of capturing competitive advantage, more effective than first-mover advantage (though the differences are not statistically significant), trade secrecy, reverse engineering, copyright, and other means. Software companies, on the other hand, rank patenting dead last in providing competitive advantage.

Figure 2: Measures of Capturing "Competitive Advantage" from Inventions
In sum, the 2008 Berkeley Patent Survey has found that startups are patenting more than previous studies have suggested; that patents are being sought for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is to prevent copying of the innovation; and that there are considerable differences among startups in the perceived significance of patents for attaining competitive advantage, with biotech companies rating them as the most important strategy and software companies rating them least important.

Our next post will delve into reasons high tech entrepreneurs gave for not seeking patents for recent innovations and for licensing of patents from other companies. 7/19/2010