Patent activity is often taken as a proxy to measure innovation, at the company, sector or country level. So the recent findings from Thomson Reuters Derwent in its World Patents Index for 2010 makes interesting reading.
Not only does the report show who is most active in 12 key technology areas, but it offers an insight to chemical producers as to where development is fastest in key end use sectors, such as aerospace and automotive. In the automotive industry, for instance, although patent filings were flat in 2010 compared with 2009, at around 89,000, the number of patents filed for alternative powered vehicles leaped 21%, to nearly 16,000, while all other sub-categories in the report showed a slight decline.
In terms of where this innovation is taking place, Japan is by far and away the power house driving the advance. The table shows this clearly:
Patents filed in 2010 for alternative powered vehicles, by company
1 Toyota Japan 2179
2 Nissan Japan 639
3 Honda Japan 467
4 Nippon Denso Japan 340
5 Matsushita Japan 287
6 Hyundai S Korea 284
7 General Motors US 243
8 Robert Bosch Germany 217
9 Daimler Germany 209
10 Aisin Japan 166
Source: Thomson Reuters Derwent
In aerospace, patent filing were up 25% in 2010, with one sector in particular leading the way: space vehicles and satellite technologies, which saw patent numbers double to close to 10,500. Again, Japanese companies lead the way, with South Korean and the US firms running a distant second.
In terms of innovation in the chemicals sector, the report singles out four key areas: agrochemicals and agriculture, with filings up 11%; petroleum and chemical engineering, up 9%; pharmaceuticals (flat); and cosmetics, down 3% in terms of patents filed in 2010 over 2009.
Agrochemical filings, in fact, were up 14% and biotech filings in this area up 7%, with Germany's Bayer (149) and BASF (143) heading the list of innovators in agrochemicals, just ahead of Sumitomo Chemical (109) and followed at some distance by Syngenta (68), Dow Chemical (51) and the University of Southern China Agriculture (51).
BASF, the world's largest chemical, company featured in the top 10 patent filers in cosmetics and chemical engineering also. A remarkable result and a clear indication of its wide-ranging innovative leadership.
Also remarkable, and a pointer to the future, is that in chemical engineering, which saw patent filings surge 14% in 2010, there are three Chinese institutes in the top 10 filers - China Petro-Chem Corp (267), second after Toyota (515); the University of Zhejiang (third with 240) and the University of Nanjing (fifth with 163). BASF ranked sixth with 152 patent filings.
Patent filings are, of course, are only an indicator of innovation activity and prowess. Getting the results of R&D to the market - the true sign of innovation - is a much trickier process. Also, many companies do not file patents on core developments, simply to save costs or avoid making technology details public. Still, for chemical companies wanting to target hot spots in customer sectors, here is one way to take the pulse of the innovation engine.