Nanotechnologies, 3D printing and robotics are areas of potential breakthrough technologies, and mostly happening in the highest income countries, with China catching up, a World Intellectual Property Organization report has found. Knowledge-sharing is an important factor of innovation, facilitated by intellectual property, according to the report. However, the world may have reached its innovation peak and may have to content with low economic growth.

WIPO released its biennial World Intellectual Property Report 2015 [pdf] yesterday. The report, with the theme “Breakthrough Innovation and Economic Growth,” found that innovation is thriving in 3D printing nanotechnology, and robotics, and mainly driven by Japan, United States, Germany, France, United Kingdom and South Korea.

WIPO Director General Francis Gurry, presenting the report in a video, said the report focuses on “those parts of innovation that might be considered to have in the past expanded greatly economic growth capacity, and several present potential breakthrough innovations that may in the future have a similar effect.”

He underlined the emergence of China as the “only middle-income country or emerging country, which is approaching” the group of six leading countries. Since 2005, he said, “China has been a major player in the area of robotics and 3D printing.”

During a press briefing on 11 November, he said China accounts for more than a quarter of patents worldwide in both areas.

Another major finding of the report, Gurry said, is that research institutions and universities are becoming much more important players, in particular with respect to nanotechnologies. “It is a strong indication that science and technology are coming closer together,” he said.

During the 11 November press briefing, he said that since 2008, growth rates have been disappointing. Historically, he added, technological breakthrough resulted in long lasting expansion of economic growth.

An importing finding of the report is that innovation has flourished as a result of knowledge-sharing mechanisms, said Gurry, through disclosure of invention, which is part of the patent system, and because IP is a “very flexible tool for managing cooperative arrangements in relation to research and development, for example by licensing.”

Historical and Potential

According to the executive summary [pdf], the report “explores channel through which innovation promotes growth, and the ecosystems in which innovation flourishes.” The report features six case studies of breakthrough innovations: three historical ones and three innovations with breakthrough potential.

Historical innovations considered are: airplanes, antibiotics, and semiconductors. Current innovations analysed are 3D printing, nanotechnologies, and robotics.

According to WIPO Chief Economist Carsten Fink, speaking at the press briefing, one original contribution of the report is the mapping of patents for the six fields of innovation. This mapping was achieved through a variety of techniques, he said, and in particular considering patent documents in databases. Some of those patent documents go back to the 19th century, he said.

Patent mappings show where companies seek protection for their inventions, he said, and it turns out that most 3D, nanotechnology and robotics patents are filed in high-income markets. Low and middle-income countries receive less that 3 percent of patents filed worldwide in those areas.

This results from the fact that high-income economies have the largest market for those technologies and host the most sophisticated technology competitors, he said.

According to the report, five countries account for the top 10 patent applicants in the field of 3D printing, nanotechnology, and robotics. The first three for 3D printing are: 3D Systems (US), Stratasys (US), and Siemens (Germany). For nanotechnology: Samsung Electronics (South Korea), Nippon Steel (Japan), IBM (US), and for robotics: Toyota (Japan), Samsung (South Korea), and Honda (Japan).

Patent System Key to Innovation; Beware Patent Thickets

According to the executive summary, in all six cases featured in the report, innovators relied on the patent system to protect their inventions, in particular in the area of semiconductors.

“Available evidence suggests that IP protection contributed at least partially to R&D [research and development] appropriation – thus indicating that IP rights mattered for innovation incentives,” it said.

The report also underlines the importance of knowledge-sharing arrangements, such as in the case of the first clubs of amateur airplane inventors in the 19th century, which “operated not unlike the open-source communities which today contribute to 3D printing and robotics research.”

Today, according to the report, “many firms engaging in 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics research have embraced open innovation approaches,” and in many cases the IP system has acted as facilitator in this sharing of knowledge.

A possible concern about the current innovation ecosystems, according to the report, is “the large number of patent filings, which may give rise to patent thickets that could stifle rather than enable technology markets.”

However, patent thickets have not been of concern yet in the areas of 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics, and “the IP system appears to have accommodated different knowledge-sharing mechanism,” according to the report.

Technology Shaping the IP System

The case studies on 3D printing, nanotechnology and robotics have brought to light several new considerations “that will inevitably shape IP policy in the future,” the report said.

For example, the report says that copyright is becoming increasingly relevant for technological innovation, widening the role of copyright. The emergence of low-cost 3D printing is raising enforcement issues, as it offers the possibility to easily reproduce any object that may be protected by IP rights, it said.

There is also reason to believe that “trade secret policy has become more important,” it added, in part because the mobility of knowledge workers has increased.

In another section, the report underlined the importance of antibiotics discovery as a major innovation breakthrough.

“The discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s revolutionized health, clinical practice and industry,” it said. “The development of antibiotics led to a sharp decrease in mortality and an overall increase in life expectancy within a very short time span.”

End of Global Growth? Two Opposite Views

The 2008 global financial crisis seems to have brought long-lasting effect on growth prospects, according to the report. “Does the financial crisis mark the beginning of a new era of lower growth?” asks the report.

The report gives an overview of the two perspectives. An optimistic view contrasts with a pessimistic view in the report.

Optimists contend that growth will eventually come back. However, some economists think that “demographic shifts and other factors have pushed advanced economies into a state of ‘secular stagnation.’”

“While innovation still contributes to future growth, persistently weak growth performance may become self-fulfilling,” the pessimistic view states, adding that “the growth contribution of ICTs has been largely realized and there is no innovation of comparable significance on the horizon.”

At the launch of the World Intellectual Property Report 2015 yesterday, a panel discussion of economists was held, entitled, “The Outlook for Innovation-Driven Growth: Is Low the New Normal?”

The panel discussion featured Bart van Ark, executive vice-president, chief economist and chief strategy officer of the Conference Board; Diane Coyle, professor of economics at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom; and Jonathan Haskel, professor of economics at the Imperial College Business School, in the UK.



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