Massachusetts Scores High in the Patent Sweepstakes (and Other Fun Insights From New Patent Office Stats)

Among the many interesting tables published in the U.S. Patent Office’s annual performance report issued on Thursday are a state-by-state breakdown of patents issued in 2007, as well as listings of patent applications filed between 2003 and 2006 (this year’s figures on patent applications won’t be published until next month). Almost any way you parse the data, Massachusetts makes a strong showing—with 3,876 patents issued in fiscal year 2007, and a record 10,506 applications filed in 2006. Way to go home team!

How does that track record compare to other states? With just a little work, the raw data from the patent office offers all sorts of tantalizing ways to compare states’ innovation efforts to figure which might be trending hot and which might be cooling down. Of course, all the usual disclaimers apply. Numbers of patents—issued or applied for—is not a particularly good indicator of real innovation. The data does not allow for comparisons by subject matter, institutional affiliation, or other potentially useful criteria. And states are, after all, a pretty crude lens through which to look at the picture. Nonetheless, as a veteran watcher of the innovation equation, I couldn’t resist whipping out my calculator and combing through U.S. census data to come up with per capita numbers. I offer here some often surprising highlights derived from the report’s figures:

First of all, in terms of raw numbers, there is no real contest. California is the overwhelming leader, with a whopping 22,888 patents issued in the last fiscal year. Texas comes in second with 6,316; New York innovators brought home 6,007, and Massachusetts ranks fourth with the aforementioned 3,876. No real surprises there.

What happens, though, when you correct for population? I calculated the number of patents per 10,000 residents. The runaway winner is…Idaho, of all places! The “potato state,” with roughly 1.4 million residents, managed to bring home 1,478 patents. By way of comparison, Maine’s 1.3 million residents produced just 133 patents, an order of magnitude difference. I’m still scratching my head about what accounts for Idaho’s patent productivity. Ideas, anyone?

Adjusted for population, here are the top 10 (listed by the number of patents issued per 10,000 residents). You’ll notice that two other New England states, Connecticut and New Hampshire, also make the list:

1. Idaho 10.08
2. Oregon 6.48
3. California 6.28
4. Massachusetts 6.02
5. Washington 5.97
6. Minnesota 5.79
7. Connecticut 4.66
8. New Hampshire 4.63

9. Colorado 4.36
10. Delaware 4.14

At the bottom of the heap, offering fewer surprises, came states such as Alaska, Mississippi, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Louisianathat have very little in the way of innovation infrastructure. These states all weigh in with well under one patent per 10,000 residents.

Still, with the patent application process now routinely taking upwards of three to four years in some sectors, patents are not a particularly up-to-date way to track innovation. Looking at patent applications filed, Massachusetts makes an even stronger showing—with a per capita rate of patent applications in 2006 that nudges out even California. You know, that place that has Silicon Valley.

What about trends? With the patent office offering annual data on applications going back to 2003, I went back to the calculator to compute which states’ patent applications are increasing the most rapidly. Here again, Massachusetts makes a respectable showing, with a 20 percent increase in patent applications between 2003 and 2006, roughly in line with a number of other big patent states such as Texas.

Here, though, the data reveal five surprising states—Vermont (another New England rising star), West Virginia, North Dakota, Georgia, and Utah—in which patent applications are up significantly. Their overall numbers of patent applications might still be small, but these states clearly appear to be making strides in building innovation infrastructure from the ground up. In this category, though, there’s unmistakable winner that is less surprising: Washington state. Between 2003 and 2006, with help, no doubt, from Microsoft, Amazon, and a host of software startups, Washington’s patent applications jumped from 6,293 to 10,444, an impressive 66 percent increase that earns Washington the top spot among states trending hot for innovation in the patent sweepstakes.

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