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The concrete goals of the campaign are highly pragmatic: to break into the list of the top ten U.S. patentees and to increase revenue by licensing the patents out to other companies. “We will move up into the top ten in the next year or two years,” Fox predicts.

Although the process of patenting historically tends to be dominated by large, well-known concerns-four of TR’s five patents to watch come from IBM, Lucent Technologies, NEC and Microsoft-the scorecard also shows that smaller, newer companies are making inroads in fast-moving industries like biotechnology and semiconductors.

San Jose, CA-based chip-packaging innovator Tessera Technologies, ranked twelfth in the semiconductor sector, has made its methods for connecting chips to circuit boards an industry standard without making chips itself; instead it sells licenses for its technology to companies like Intel and Samsung. Meanwhile, biotechnology firms like top-ranked Santa Clara, CA-based DNA-chip maker Affymetrix and eighth-place Mountain View, CA-based microfluidics company Caliper Technologies are turning their patent-protected products into the tools that will drive drug discovery and biomedical research over the next decade.

While these upstart companies have increased their patenting, sometimes dramatically, their appearance and position on the scorecard are due more to the wider impact of their patents, which boosts their technological-strength rating dramatically. In Caliper’s case, its microfluidics technologies shrink the volumes of reactions needed to evaluate new drugs or perform diagnostic tests from microliters to nanoliters-and put the whole experimental apparatus on a single chip. Theoretically, this will enable dramatic cost savings in the time and money needed to develop drugs or diagnose diseases.

“We were fortunate enough to come into microfluidics in a time when the patent landscape wasn’t as crowded as it is now,” says Caliper vice president of intellectual property Matt Murphy. “We’ve tried to file broadly enough to cover the general path we’re taking and then file aggressively.”

The six-year-old company has sold its initial system, codeveloped with Agilent Technologies, to nearly every major pharmaceutical maker.

Affymetrix holds a similar position as the leading supplier of DNA chips that allow researchers to analyze the activity of thousands of genes at a time. Although the company isn’t new to the scorecard, it made an astonishing leap from the fourteenth position in the biotechnology/ pharmaceuticals sector last year to the top spot. Its 54 patents issued in 2001, although double its 2000 total, lag far behind number two GlaxoSmithKline’s 432. Its strength comes instead from its position as an early manufacturer of DNA microarrays, as well as devices to synthesize and read the chips and software to analyze the resulting data. “We try to cover the array area from start to finish,” says Philip McGarrigle, Affymetrix’s chief intellectual-property counsel.

Both small companies such as Affymetrix and industry giants like IBM say they will continue to innovate and to aggressively protect their innovations by filing patents, tough times or not. They will also increasingly defend the patents on which they depend for their future fortunes, likely leading to further growth in already vigorous patent litigation. All of which means that while one sector or another may be hot in a given year-and there is no telling where next year’s most important inventions will come from-the corporate passion for patents won’t end anytime soon.

Want more? Get an exclusive report generated specifically for Technology Review readers that ranks 603 companies on their patent averages back to 1996. This file is sent in Microsoft Excel format to enable robust search and analysis options.

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