Cleantech innovation high in Asia, patent counts show

Cleantech innovation high in Asia, patent counts show

Given the decline in cleantech investments in recent years -- and other pressures such as competition from natural gas development -- some pundits say that cleantech has entered the trough of disillusionment in the Gartner Hype Cycle. But a glance at patent trends paints a picture of some very high inventiveness in the cleantech sector, especially in Asia.

Big eastern influence

Japan’s Toyota led the pack -- as it did in the first two quarters of 2012. It received 71 patent grants, a bump of 54 percent over the second quarter. General Electric received the second-highest number of patents, at 58, with General Motors in third, receiving 39 patents. But only three of the top 10 assignees (the holder of patent property rights) in the third quarter are U.S. firms (Ford squeezed in at number 10). The other top innovators include Japanese companies Honda and Mitsubishi, along with South Korean (Samsung, Hyundai) and German (Siemens) businesses.

"GE was big in 2011 and GM was big in 2010, but Toyota is staging a comeback," says Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti attorney Victor Cardona, whose Albany, New York-based firm focuses on intellectual property rights. He adds: “The Japanese have been investing heavily in U.S. [cleantech] patents since we've been tracking this. I don’t see it going away soon."

Because the U.S. is the biggest single market, it has the most U.S. and non-U.S. assignees, according to Cardona.

But the strong pursuit of IP among Asian firms, particularly Japanese companies, is also evident in research that GreenBiz will be releasing as part of its State of Green Business report this month. This data shows that worldwide, GE is only U.S. firm among the top 16 assignees and that only two -- Siemens and BASF -- hail from Europe.

Next page:  What about American innovation? 

U.S. presence small, but notable

Despite a small showing, U.S. patent activity is still buzzing. Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti says that during the third quarter of 2012, 798 patents related to clean technologies were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is a 33 percent increase over the same quarter in 2011, when 599 cleantech patents were granted. It is the highest quarter since the law firm began tracking cleantech IP in 2002, through its Clean Energy Patent Growth Index (CEPGI). It follows 786 patents granted in the second quarter, which also set a record.

After watching the CEPGI grow strong and steady since 2002 – and in fact surge since 2009 -- Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti attorney Victor Cardona says cleantech patents are starting to translate into real progress on the ground. "The advances in wind, solar, fuel cells, energy storage not to mention energy efficiency would most certainly reduce the carbon footprint of any company employing these technologies," he says. "For example, any electricity  generated by a cleantech technology would not have to be generated using fossil fuels. A reduction in fossil fuel use would be a part of any sustainability plan."

Sun, wind, fuel

Since Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti began tracking cleantech patents in 2002, IP based on fuel cell technology has been the basis of the greatest number of patents granted in the U.S., followed by patents related to solar energy and wind energy. With so many carmakers among the top assignees, this is no surprise. But the volume of fuel cell patents far outpaces those based on hybrid and electric propulsion technologies, perhaps because fuel cells technology is further from maturity. "Every five years, they say fuel cells are going to be the next big thing in five years," quips Cardona.

While fuel cell patents grew steadily from 2002 through present, solar and wind patents have experienced steeper climbs. The number of patents for solar and for wind hovered around 25-50 per quarter until 2009, when they began climbing to between 200 and 250 patents in recent quarters.

Tide or wave energy patents are also experiencing strong growth, as are those related to biomass and bio-fuels.

Hot IP despite cool investing climate

According to the Cleantech Group, global venture capital investments in cleantech fell by 33 percent in 2012. Venture deals were also down in 2011. There is a correlation between patents activity and how much money companies are putting into their research and development efforts. But Cardona does not expect the current lull in capital to appreciably dampen patent activity in cleantech.

Cleantech patents have clearly been accelerating since '02," he says. "It's just a matter of how quick they’re going up."

Photo of green grass on mock tablet over desiccated ground provided by Nixx Photography via Shutterstock.