Is great science sitting on a shelf?
Patenting report shows disconnect in Canada
by Paul Krzyzanowski
Got a patentable idea? You might want to move to Switzerland. A recent article in the Globe and Mail compared Canada's patenting activity to other major countries, and the small European nation came out a clear winner.
2010 was a record year for US patents issuances to countries around the world. The Globe reported that US patents granted to Canadian applicants increased by 20 per cent – a commendable increase, until one notices that this was still behind those granted to applicants from other countries like Japan (up 26 per cent), Germany (up 25 per cent), South Korea (up 26 per cent) or the U.S. itself (up 24 per cent). It’s possible that these across-the board increases simply represent a backlog of patents created by the 2008 credit crisis, but since total U.S. patent grabs have increased annually each year since 2007 it suggests that the recent poor economic conditions didn’t affect patenting activity drastically.
The more revealing numbers cited by the Globe and Mail were actual per capita patents, a more realistic measure of relative performance. These numbers indicate which population really leverages their know-how and capitalizes on it, and unfortunately Canada peformed poorly here too:
“Based on patents issued in 2007 by U.S., European and Japanese patent offices..., one small country emerged as a spectacular patent producer. It wasn’t Canada. With a 7.8 million population, Switzerland led the world with 120 patents per million people. Japan finished close behind with 118. Other top-inventor countries [were]: Sweden (80), Germany (68), Netherlands, Finland and Denmark (all 60) – ... the United States (40) and Canada (20).”
In other words, when examining all industries together, the Swiss are six times as productive as Canadians in terms of patents per person.
This data presents a sobering reality for Canada. While it’s very unlikely that Canada will ever lead the world based on volumes of patents, we’re clearly lagging. As patents are a proxy for innovation and future economic success, the message is that Canada needs to improve in the patenting arena.
However, each country does have its industrial strengths and weaknesses. Switzerland is also home to many major international companies you might recognize like Lonza, Hoffman-La Roche, Logitech, and Novartis. They’re all patenting powerhouses and likely skew the results in Switzerland’s favour.
Specifically examining Canadian industries, the Council of Canadian Academies broke down patent data in 2006 and looked at each individually, finding that while Canadian biotechnology patent volume was above average, they were cited at lower than average levels (photonics and energy production were highest). The report concluded that Canadian biotechnology intellectual property was considered to be of lower technological importance on a global level.
More importantly, it also highlighted a disconnect between discovery and commercialization: “Canada’s patenting activity is relatively weak in many fields where it produces good science.”
This less-than-ideal performance hasn’t remained unnoticed by government. Industry Canada is currently focusing on several aims to improve innovation, such as initiatives to encourage biotechnology commercialization, modernization of Canada’s intellectual property laws, and improvements to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office to speed turnaround times in patent granting. There is still a vision to continue developing Canada as a major exporter of intellectual property with the necessary infrastructure being streamlined, but a strong culture of commercialization and entrepreneurship is critical to make things move as well. Maybe we need to take a lesson or two from the Swiss.