An Evolving Landscape
The term “nanotechnology” generally denotes a wide array of technologies related to materials with physical features on the order of 1 nm to 1 µm. Beginning largely with the discovery of buckminsterfullerenes in 1985(1) and the development of carbon nanotubes six years later (2), nanotechnology has been the subject of considerable research interest. With these seminal advances solidly in place, viable technologies on the nanoscale had arrived with the potential to revolutionize materials and materials research.
Realizing this potential, universities and corporations alike made significant investments in the development of nanotechnology. Such investments have yielded a variety of important and interesting materials including semiconductor nanocrystals/quantum dots, organic and inorganic colloids, organic light emitting materials, wear resistant coatings, photovoltaics having nanoscale heterojunctions and lithographic resists having resolutions sufficient to enable the patterning of nanoscale circuitry.
The successful development of nanotechnology over the past 25 years has also yielded an increasingly crowded patent space addressing nanoscale inventions. Furthermore, over two decades of intense nanotechnological research has produced a voluminous body of prior art operable to significantly erode claim scope of newly filed patent applications. Given these considerations and the importance of patents to the commercialization of nanotechnology, questions arise regarding the present and future nanotechnology patent landscape. Is the nanotech patent landscape so overdeveloped that only pockets of meaningful protection currently exist or do large tracts of unclaimed space remain?
It is intrinsically difficult to answer such questions with a high degree of certainty given the breadth of the nanotechnology field. Available patent space is sure to vary significantly across nanotechnology’s numerous subdisciplines. However, it is still useful to examine the evolutionary track of the nanotech patent landscape on a macro-level to identify a general trajectory.
Interestingly and fortunately, we can look to the predecessor of nanotechnology for assistance in mapping the evolutionary track of the nanotech patent landscape. Prior to nanotechnology, microtechnology was at the leading edge of materials research. Figure 1 provides an evolutionary comparison between microtechnology and nanotechnology based on the number of United States patents issued in each field over the last four decades (3). Two features are especially notable in Figure 1. First, significant growth in patenting microtechnology continues, with the number of issued patents in the most recent decade eclipsing the prior three decades. Second, the nanotechnology patent landscape exhibits features of a still young technology, especially compared to microtechnology. Nanotechnology patents were essentially non-existent in the 1970s and 1980s. Slow development occurred in the 1990s, with significant growth coming in the most recent decade.
This macroscopic view is favorable to companies and universities investing in nanotechnology as large tracts of unclaimed patent space likely remain available. Moreover, factoring in robust development, it could still take several decades for nanotechnology to reach the present maturity of the microtechnology patent landscape. Even then, the patent landscape of nanotechnology would likely continue to evolve at a significant pace, as microtechnology has done. In 2010, for example, over 2000 patents having “micro” in the claims were issued by the United States Patent Office.
One word of caution is in order, however. As with other developing technologies, the available claim scope in most nanotechnology related fields has substantially declined during the growth of the last decade. This decrease in available “white space” has been driven primarily by the proliferation of nanotech patents and publications that can be used by the Patent Office as prior art against later filed applications. Table 1 illustrates a common type of claim scope contraction. The patent claims listed in Table 1 both cover semiconductor nanocrystals stabilized by a ligand that can impart water solubility to the nanocrystals, and both come from the same research group. The ’303 patent issued in 2001, and the ’424 patent issued in 2009. The later patent claim covers nanocrystals comprising only a relatively specific type of polydentate ligand, whereas the earlier claim nominally covers a much more generic class.
Despite the general contraction in claim scope, both the short and long term patenting forecasts for nanotechnology-related inventions is encouraging. Ultimately, however, the nanotech patent landscape will become overdeveloped thereby posing the question of what will be the next materials frontier?
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