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

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

In our previous post, we discussed some of the major findings from 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. (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.)

As we noted at the end of our last post, when asked about the role patents play in directly driving the innovation process, our respondents reported relatively weak effects. As Figure 1 below indicates, executives at biotechnology companies stated that, on average, patents provide slightly less than "moderate" incentives to invent, perform initial R & D, and commercialize products. For software companies, the responses fall to just below "slight" incentives.

Even when respondents are limited to those companies that hold at least one patent or application, the results do not change much. For these patent-holding companies, biotechnology companies report just slightly above moderate incentives and software companies report just above slight incentives for these same innovation-related activities.

Figure 1: The Role of Patents in the Innovation Process
These results are somewhat surprising for biotechnology companies, because anecdotal reports had indicated that biotech companies relied heavily on patenting to protect their investments in R & D. On the other hand, the results do generally accord with anecdotal reports from the software industry.

The authors of the 2008 Berkeley Patent Survey report are not all of one mind about how to interpret the incentive effect findings of our study. Some of us would discount these results in that they reflect the perceptions of executives about how patents work, and might not accord with economic reality. Specifically, while these executives may have understood our questions, they may not have fully comprehended the role patenting plays in the innovation process, which is often subtle. For instance, in an earlier post we noted important secondary effects of patents, such as attracting capital and enabling arm's-length transactions. These effects may contribute enough of a "plus factor" to make certain projects viable, even if executives do not think of patents in those terms. In other words, if patents are effective in garnering investment capital—which is then used to perform R & D—although executives might not view patents as the immediate cause of innovation, patents might still play an important role in the innovation process that is not fully reflected in our study results. Yet, others of us are more willing to give credence to the perception of entrepreneurs who report that patents provide weak to moderate incentives to invest in innovation. Who are we as scholars to say that they are incorrect in their assessment about the importance (or not) of patents?

We acknowledge that our analysis to date of the study results do not allow us to say one way or the other whether the views of the executives accurately reflect the economics of the patent system. Thus, it would be wrong to conclude, as one commentator has, that one of the key findings of our study is that patents "play essentially no role in fostering innovation among startup companies . . . outside biotech and other limited areas." In the same fashion, it may also be wrong to conclude that the executives taking the survey were not fully aware of the economics of patents, and the reality is that patents play a major role in promoting innovation. Rather, based on our study results, one can draw competing inferences that explain the results. As such, we come to no conclusions in this article regarding the actual role patents play in fostering startup innovation (or not).

To be sure, relying on other evidence, several of us have expressed views on the topic elsewhere. Unfortunately, even combining this additional evidence with our study data does not definitively answer the question. The data, however, present an interesting paradox: If executives believe that patents provide relatively weak incentives to innovate, why are so many startup firms seeking them? Our first post indicated that securing financing was a reason why many firms reported seeking patents.

Reinforcing that finding is another significant result. Our survey asked entrepreneurs to report their views on the importance of patents to potential funders, such as venture capitalists (VCs), angel investors, other firms, commercial banks, and friends and family. Our respondents indicate that many potential investors with whom they negotiated said that patents were important to their investment decisions. Of companies negotiating with VC firms, 67% report that these firms indicated that patents were an important factor in their investment decisions.

Interestingly, this result was not just driven by biotech and medical device firms. Broken down by industry, the figures were 60% for software companies, 73% for biotech, and 85% for medical devices. Respondents also report that substantial percentages of other types of investors, such as angels, investment banks, and other companies found patents important to their investment decisions.

In our view, this last finding may help to explain why many high tech startups seek patents, even though their executives report that patents provide relatively weak incentives to innovate. Raising money, rather than invention itself, may be the key.

Of course, this conclusion begs the question of why patents are important in the startup financing process in the first instance. Like the innovation incentives issue, the authors are not in full accord on the explanations here. One possible interpretation is that startup executives are generally unaware of the link between patents and success in the innovative process, which results in financial markets selecting those companies that patent more heavily. Another interpretation is that patents serve important functions not related to the innovation process, such as helping to prevent infringement lawsuits, providing leverage in cross-licensing negotiations, and acting as "signals" of firm competency, which drive investment. A third interpretation may be that investors want startups to patent so there will be some marketable assets if the companies fail in the market. And these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, as we indicated earlier, our analysis cannot resolve this dilemma. We hope that further research by us and others ultimately will make progress in doing so. In the meantime, we believe our study offers one of the most important resources for understanding the effects and use of patents by entrepreneurs. 7/21/2010