Got a great idea for new invention? Get to work and get a patent.
When it comes to innovation, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton Metropolitan Statistical Area is no better than middling compared to the rest of the nation, according to a new report, and more patents tend to correlate with more wealth and lower unemployment.
The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings conducted what it dubbed “the first analysis of its kind,” studying patenting trends from 1980 to 2012 in 358 Metropolitan Statistical Areas, then ranking metro areas in things like number of patents and patents per 1,000 jobs.
Nationwide, the patent rate is “at historically high levels,” according to the report. And 63 percent of those patents are developed by people in 20 metro areas. A high number of patents is associated with “higher productivity growth, lower unemployment rates and creation of more publicly-traded companies,” the report notes.
But Wilkes University Engineering Chair Rodney Ridley warned that earning a high rank in the number of patents doesn’t automatically equate with higher wealth. In fact, he said, the metro areas with high innovation can become victims of their own successes.
“We call it the patent myth,” Ridley said. The first myth is that most people forget a patent in and of itself provides nothing other than the right to use the idea. It does nothing until you create and sell a product and process.”
The second myth: When large universities and corporations team to chase patents, it can be more hindrance than help as they duel over intellectual property rights. A company can “end up spending more time dealing with their lawyers than with the professor who is going to figure out your problem,” Ridley said.
In fact, the lack of such a dynamic locally can be an advantage in this area. Ridley spent 20 years working at Fairchild Semiconductor Corp. in Mountain Top, ultimately serving on its university relations team, and said he never ran into those types of roadblocks.
The proof may be in the numbers. Fairchild tops the local list of patent winners in the Brookings data, earning 15 patents in 2011.
“Depending on the problem we had, we would seek out a university professor that had specific expertise.” Part of the trick was to bring that professor on board before the company reached the expected problem. The company could work on other aspects of a project while the professor figured out how to get over the looming roadblock.
In turn, “the university gets a strong industrial partner.” Wilkes, for example, recently helped a company and was given access to an expensive piece of equipment to further the school’s own research and training. The company is also more likely to hire students at the school.
“Those types of relationships are going to become paramount,” Ridley said. “No university other than the really large ones is going to have enough resources to maintain and stay ahead of the technology curve. Without corporate partners, there’s just no way.
And collaboration toward innovation is becoming vital in the United States because “We increasingly don’t produce things, we produce ideas.”
Data included with the report show the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre MSA roughly kept pace with national annual growth in producing “ideas” from 1980 until about 2000, hitting more than 200 patents per year before slumping below 200 even as the national rate approached 600.
From 2007 through 2011, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre averaged 65 patents per year, putting it at 147th among the 358 MSAs studied. That matched closely with the area’s rank at 143rd highest in percentage of workers employed in technology fields: 3 percent.
But the region fares more poorly when number of patents is compared to number of jobs: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre had just 0.3 patents per 1,000 jobs, for a rank of 216th.
The area also ranked low in two indicators that correlate with high patent rates:
In 2011, only 5.7 percent of workers had bachelor degrees in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, sinking the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre MSA to 277th. The report notes a high correlation between STEM degrees and patents.
In 2011 the area’s gross domestic product-per-worker was $81,416, placing the area 204th in the nation. The report uses GDP-per-worker to gauge an MSA’s productivity. MSAs with high patent rates tend to be more productive.
This region is at a disadvantage in competing with high-patent areas such as Boston and California, because those areas have the high venture capital resources to promote innovation and development of emerging technologies, Ridley said.
But this area still has the advantages that come with smaller businesses and universities: It’s easier to connect and collaborate.
“There are a very few large universities doing a lot of stuff,” Ridley said, “But there are a whole lot more small to medium universities and companies that can generate innovation. Their behavior and relationships are more collaborative. They are long-term, sustained relationships that grow both the company and the university.”