A simple analysis of inventor data from the US Patent and Trade Marks Office (USPTO) records reveals something interesting but, upon reflection, unsurprising: invention does not happen in a vacuum. Prolific inventors tend to be associated with other prolific inventors, and/or with prolifically inventive organisations. Of the ten people who have received the most US patents over the past 25 years, there are four ‘pairs’ of inventors who have worked closely together over an extended period, and one who works for IBM – a company that recently topped the list of US patent recipients for the 24th consecutive year. And, while the final member of the top 10 is not partnered with any other famously prolific inventor or company, he has at least one co-inventor on around half of his granted patents, where the same names of family and associates keep cropping up.
Two Australians make the list. Indeed, the most prolific recipient of US patents over the last quarter century is Australian Kia Silverbrook. The other Australian in the top 10, at number five, is Paul Lapstun, who has worked with Silverbrook for many years. Japan’s top inventor, Shunpei Yamazaki comes in at number two, with his colleague at Yamazaki’s company Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL), Jun Koyama, at number four. Long time collaborators, and now senior inventors at Intellectual Ventures, Rod Hyde and Lowell Wood sit at numbers three and six respectively.
Two members of the list, Apple’s Jony Ive (10) and Bartley Andre (seven), make the grade primarily on the basis of their large numbers of design patents, while Kangguo Cheng comes in at number eight on the basis of his work at IBM Research.
The tenth member of the top ten, coming in at number nine, is Donald E Weder, who is inventor or co-inventor on a mix of utility and design patents relating primarily to floristry. Even though Weder is not paired with any other member of the top 10, or associated with a famous corporation like IBM, he is nonetheless a collaborator like all the other, sharing the inventing credits with up to 11 others on some of his patents.
All of this serves to confirm that the popular image of the lone inventor, toiling away in isolation in a laboratory or garage somewhere, is a complete myth. Innovation mostly happens where the conditions are right, and that means having a supportive environment, including teams of innovative people who can work together and bounce ideas off one another in the course of creating something new. Indeed, over 3,600 patents attributed to the top 10 inventors have two members of the list as co-inventors.
The DataI used USPTO PAIR Bulk Data (PBD) for the analysis of top inventors, as described in my earlier article on patent grant rates. In order to be counted, a patent needed to satisfy the following criteria:
- filed on or after 1 January 1992 (i.e. during the 25 year period ending on 31 December 2016); and
- actually granted, i.e. an inventor does not get credit for applications that do not result in an issued patent (including those still pending that might issue in the future).
(It is worth noting that actually identifying inventors who are the same person in the USPTO data is an imprecise art. For example, if one of the top 10 inventors was a ‘J Smith’ you might wonder if this was really just one person! The available information is first, middle and last names, and city, state and country of residence. Requiring middle names and country of residence to match reduces the rate of false attribution, but risks missing cases where an inventor’s middle name might not have been included on the application, or the inventor may have moved country. I chose not to match additional address information, because movement of inventors between towns or cities over a 25 year period is quite likely.)
I included both utility (i.e. ‘invention’) patents and design patents in the numbers, on the basis that innovation in design can be just as important and valuable as innovation in technology.
The ResultsThe table below lists the top 10 inventors, along with country of residence, and total number of patents over the past 25 years as determined by the methodology outline above.
Kia Silverbrook (AU)
Shunpei Yamazaki (JP)
Roderick A Hyde (US)
Jun Koyama (JP)
Paul Lapstun (AU)
Lowell L Wood (US)
Bartley K Andre (US)
Kangguo Cheng (US)
Donald E Weder (US)
Jonathan (‘Jony’) P Ive (US)
Over 90% of the patents issued to these 10 inventors are utility (invention) patents. It is notable, however, that three of the inventors would not be on the list were it not for their sizable portfolios of design patents. Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design, Jony (or, more formally, Sir Jonathan) Ives, and his team member Bartley Andre, predominantly hold design patents. Andre’s 1168 patents include 1090 design patents and only 78 utility patents, while Ive’s 960 patents include 895 design patents and just 56 utility patents. Donald Weder holds 796 utility patents, which is no small feat in 25 years, but would not be on this list were it not for his 262 design patents.
The InventorsSo, who are these people who have become such abundant sources of US patent rights?
According to his Wikipedia entry, Kia Silverbrook (1) is ‘is an Australian inventor, scientist, and serial entrepreneur’ who has ‘founded companies and developed products in a wide range of disciplines, including computer graphics, video and audio production, scientific computing, factory automation, digital printing, liquid crystal displays (LCDs), molecular electronics, internet software, content management, genetic analysis, MEMS devices, security inks, photovoltaic solar cells, and interactive paper.’ However, Silverbrook’s businesses have been embroiled in more than their fair share of controversy in recent years, with an extensive legal battle fought over the ownership of MemJet™ IP rights, the liquidation of flagship company Silverbrook Research, and a stoush with the Fair Work Ombudsman over underpayment of employees. So, being a high-flying entrepreneur is not all patents, beer and skittles!
Shunpei Yamazaki (2), says Wikipedia, is ‘a Japanese inventor in the field of computer science and solid-state physics’. He is the founder, president and majority shareholder of research company Semiconductor Energy Laboratory (SEL) in Tokyo. While Yamazaki is second on the list of US patent recipients over the past 25 years, he was recently confirmed as the holder of the Guinness Word Record for the most patents credited as an inventor worldwide (11,353). His patents mostly relate to semiconductor devices and thin-film transistors. Jun Koyama (4) is a long-time collaborator of Yamazaki, who has worked at SEL since 1992. Koyama is a co-inventor with Yamazaki on 782 patents filed and granted in the past 25 years.
Roderick Hyde (3) and Lowell Wood (6) are both senior inventors at IP development and licensing company Intellectual Ventures. However, their collaborations extend back to the 1970s, when they worked on space technology (and, quite probably, weapons) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. They were also involved in work on the Strategic Defence Initiative, a.k.a. Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence shield. They also thought about how to propel a starship using small nuclear fusion explosions, and how to build a ‘space fountain’ capable of lifting objects into Earth orbit. These days they are reportedly interested in CRISPR gene editing technology. Hyde and Wood are co-inventors on 932 patents filed and granted in the past 25 years.
Since 1977, Donald Weder (9) has been President of Highland Supply Corporation (‘HSC’), which was founded in 1937 by his father Erwin. HSC’s rather basic website describes the company as ‘The Premier Manufacturer of Quality Floral, Gift Basket and Decorative Packaging’. Like the other inventors on the list, Weder has benefited from some long-term collaborations. For example, Joseph Straeter is a co-inventor on around 390 of Weder’s patents, while William Straeter is a co-inventor on around 150 patents.
Paul Lapstun (5) is currently Chief Technology Officer at nearmap, which focusses on the provision of high-quality geospatial map technology for business, enterprises and government customers. Lapstun was previously CTO of Netpage at Silverbrook Research, where he co-invented and led the research and development of digital pen and paper technologies. Lapstun is a co-inventor with Silverbrook on 1137 patents filed and granted in the past 25 years.
Bartley Andre (7) is a member of Jony Ive’s (10) design team at Apple. Ive is the design genius behind the build and finish of such iconic products as the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. A New Yorker profile described him as the ‘industrial designer who became Apple’s greatest product’. Andre and Ive are co-inventors (or co-designers) on 794 patents filed and granted in the past 25 years.
Last, but not least, Kangguo Cheng (8) is an engineer at IBM Research who has worked in the field of semiconductor devices. He has been awarded the honorific of IBM ‘Master Inventor’. What is perhaps most remarkable about Cheng’s achievement is that, while many of the other members of the top 10 were well underway in their careers at the start of my 25 year window, Cheng joined IBM right after finishing his PhD in 2001, and did not file his first patent application (which was to become US patent no. 6,969,648) until 25 June 2003.
Where are the Women?As will be apparent by now, there are no women in the top 10 inventor list. The USPTO does not collect or record the gender of inventors, however from inspection of the longer list I believe that the highest-ranked woman is Jody Akana, who comes in at number 34 with 699 patents. Akana is another member of Jony Ives’ design team at Apple, so hers are predominantly design patents. Audrey Goddard, a genomics scientist who was recently appointed Vice President of Research and Development at uBiome, is probably the highest-ranked female based on utility patents, at number 50 with 580 patents to her name.
It is, unfortunately, unsurprising that women do not feature highly among the most prolific inventors. If the best indicator of inventive capacity is the opportunity to work with other prolific inventors, women have been at a distinct disadvantage for too long. The recent death of Vera Rubin – whose painstaking astronomical research provided the best evidence we have for the existence of ‘dark matter’ – highlights the problem. Less famous than... well... pretty much any make astronomer you could name, in 1965 Rubin became the first woman to get viewing time at the Palomar Observatory, an opportunity previously denied to women, ostensibly on the basis that there were no female toilets. She chose to study the density of stars in galaxies, despite having done important work on pulsars, because it was a less fashionable subject, and she would not have to spend so much effort vying for attention against male astronomers seeking to make names for themselves.
Unless women have full access to the same circles of intellectual and creative activity as men, we will not see equal representation of women among our top inventors. And that is not because men are ‘better’, it is because they are not! The data clearly shows that prolific invention is a group, not individual, activity. I am far from the first to make this observation. In his paper The Myth of the Sole Inventor, Stanford Law Professor Mark Lemley specifically debunks the ‘lone inventor’ stories of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse, and Eli Whitney. And Professor of Management, David Burkus, takes up a similar point in his book The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
Conclusion – Collaborate to InnovateThe numbers do not lie. Nobody managed to become a leading inventor by working in isolation. Or, to put it another way, all of the leading inventors identified in my analysis acquired their patents as a result of long-term collaborations and interactions with other innovative and creative people. There are lessons here for businesses, research institutes, and policy-makers.
Silicon valley is a fine example of the benefits of an environment in which like-minded people come together and collaborate in creative and unpredictable ways. Efforts elsewhere in the world, including Australia, to artificially create such environments, e.g. by designating ‘technology precincts’ and providing incentives for companies to take up residence, have generally been unsuccessful. Leading the horse to water is no guarantee it will drink!
The bottom line is that the best indication of who will be a prolific inventor is whether or not they work with other prolific inventors.