Patent Clusters debunk innovation stereotypes…sort of

February 2, 2013

A recent report from the Brookings Institution paints an interesting portrait of innovation in the U.S.

Patents are widely accepted as a measure of innovation, because a patent amounts to seeking legal protection for new and potentially valuable material.

Although we commonly think of places like New York and Los Angeles as major hubs of industry and creativity, they are not on top when it comes to generating the useful, novel and non-obvious technological creations that can be protected via patent.

The study (read it here and here) found that 63 percent of all patents are generated by 20 metropolitan areas, which together account for 34 percent of the U.S. population.

Interestingly, the top five patent-generating metropolitan areas are:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California
  • Burlington-South Burlington, Vermont
  • Rochester, Minnesota
  • Corvallis, Oregon
  • Boulder, Colorado

Now, the first one is no surprise. Those cities comprise Silicon Valley, a.k.a. Nerd Mecca, U.S.A.

Because I am a native Minnesotan, I knew that healthcare behemoth Mayo Clinic  and a big IBM campus were responsible for Rochester’s presence on that list.

I assumed Boulder made the top five because big top-secret government compounds.

Burlington confused me the most. I mean, I know Ben & Jerry’s has a ton of flavors, but I seriously doubted they were seeking patents for each and every one. It turns out Burlington has a large IBM facility and the University of Vermont. I did a little digging to see what UVM was churning out patent applications over, but my attempts were foiled. Hence, I am just going with my preconceived notion: processes for new and exciting types of cheddar cheese.

I wondered if Corvallis had a big Columbia Sportswear or Nike facility, since those come in behind only “rain” when I think of the Oregon, but apparently it also has an IBM facility and is home to Oregon State University.  Once again, I did a little sleuthing in an attempt to find out what OSU was seeking patents for, but my results were about as clear as a patch of Pacific Northwest fog.

Now, this study doesn’t capture a lot of what makes a city “smart,” so to speak. Material that would be protected by copyright or trademark wasn’t included, for example, so a city filled with witty playwrights and clever advertising copywriters would fare poorly by this benchmark. Still, I did find it interesting that little ol’ Rochester and humble Burlington are actually pretty giant patent powerhouses. I plan to keep this information in my back pocket the next time one of my really-big-city friends starts pooh-poohing any place that isn’t Miami or Chicago.