Patenting Trends and Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology

Biofuels, chemicals and other products are made in more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways thanks to biotechnology.
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The October 2008 research study, Patenting Trends and Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology, prepared by the Office of Industries of the U.S. International Trade Commission creates a profile of innovation in industrial biotechnology, an emerging field of biotechnology characterized by the use of enzymes, microorganisms and other biocatalysts to create new products. Biofuels, chemicals and other products are made in more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways thanks to biotechnology. With these benefits increasing demand for industrial biotechnology products and processes, this study uses patent data, survey results, and technology and firm level data from emerging sectors of industrial biotechnology to paint a detailed picture of innovation in the field. 

The authors of this study found substantial evidence to support the fact that patents are facilitating, not stifling, innovation in industrial biotechnology. A wide-ranging group of firms, both large and small, are developing new patented products and processes, new firms are steadily coming into the field, and the average number of patents held by firms working in the field is still comparatively small. Patent portfolios are playing an important role in company engagement in industrial biotechnology by facilitating the commercialization of new products and processes. Also, a recent U.S. International Trade Commission report shows most firms in the biofuel and chemical industries state that patent barriers are not creating a substantial impediment to the R&D or commercialization of industrial biotechnology products.

From January 1975 through December 2006, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued 20,428 utility patents with a primary classification related to industrial biotechnology. The number of patents issued each year climbed steadily beginning in the mid-1980s, peaked in 1999, declined from 2000 through 2005, and rebounded in 2006. Mirroring trends in the broader field of biotechnology, those for industrial biotechnology patenting and are strongly influenced by capacity and resource issues at the USPTO, particularly longer and more rigorous review periods. 

The study looks specifically at two emerging areas of industrial biotechnology: cellulose-related enzymes used in the production of cellulosic ethanol and enzymes for biobased plastics production. This enables a more in depth look at the role patents are playing at the technology and firm levels. In both technology areas, leading patenting firms hold a relatively small number of patents. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index shows that the control of patents rights in these emerging fields is not concentrated and a steady stream of new owners has been entering the fields over the last ten years.    

The study profiled four leading patenting firms in these emerging fields—Novozymes, Verenium, Metabolix, and Cargill—showcasing the significant role that patents are playing in firm activities. These firms relied on patents to enhance and protect their market share, transfer technologies from the university setting, facilitate strategic alliances with other firms and the federal government, and protect R&D investments. A varied and growing group of companies rely on patent portfolios and strategic alliances to move industrial biotechnology products and processes toward commercialization.
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