IBM announced today that it once again led the United States in the number of patents. That’s an achievement in its own right, but this is the 20th year in a row that IBM has lead the list. It wasn’t particularly close. Here’s the top 10, from IFI claims. IBM’s total was bigger than Accenture, Amazon, Apple, EMC, HP, Intel, Oracle/SUN and Symantec combined.
1 IBM 6,478
2 Samsung 5,081
3 Canon 3,174
4 Sony 3,032
5 Panasonic 2,769
6 Microsoft 2,613
7 Toshiba 2,446
8 Hon Hai 2,013
9 General Electric 1,652
10 LG Electronics 1,624
When asked how the company’s managed to do it, chief patent counsel Manny Schecter told us that it’s down to “a strong commitment to research and development and a rigorous culture of innovation.”
There’s more to it than that though. The fact that they’re an IT company helps. It also helps that they’ve been doing it longer than anybody else, the company’s first patent was in 1911.
“When you’ve had that kind of history, unlike some of those companies on the West Coast, that you know, they’re doing great, I mean them no ill will,” Schecter said, “but many of them have only been around for 5-10-20 years, they couldn’t possibly have been doing this for as long as we have. So we have history on our side so to speak.”
So from the beginning, there’s a focus on innovation, and on being rigorous about patenting it. The company applies arguably its own greatest area of expertise, in software and services, to making its signature efforts more effective. “There are some commercial vendors that now sell tools for managing your invention pipeline,” Schechter said, “and they’re pretty good, but suffice it to say that by and large we think we have the most thorough set of tools around, because we’ve been doing this longer than just about anybody.”
Patents are on a long timeline, Schecter said that even for a shorter cycle technology, the time from hearing from an inventor to actually getting a granted patent can be three to five years.
That makes it a bit more difficult to predict which of those 6000 plus patents we might see soon or might have the sort of impact that past inventions like the disc drive or laser eye surgery have had.
Still, IBM’s stayed on top of the patent list even as its completely changed its business and moved away from consumer hardware, and the company’s legacy of significant inventions makes Schecter confident. “I can’t predict precisely which one of these innovations will be the most significant in the future,” Schecter said, “but that’s why I am confident that they will have a great impact on the future.”
Schecter mentioned using the WATSON supercomputer in healthcare as one possibility. They’re already working with institutions like Sloan-Kettering on it. Cancer care, for example, mostly happens in small community hospitals. The standard of care can vary wildly. Something that can understand language and and analyse probability like WATSON can could be a powerful diagnosis tool.
It may be years before we actually see some of those 6000 patents in our lives, but it’ll be interesting to see where the company goes with them.
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